Let’s go, Jets: Return of Winnipeg a win for the fans | VailDaily.com

Let’s go, Jets: Return of Winnipeg a win for the fans

The only junior-style teams I’ve cared about are ones with locals, the Waterloo (Iowa) Black Hawks (J.P. and Mike Testwuide) and Boise (Idaho) Jr. Steelheads (Connor Tedstrom). I love hockey. I watch hockey, but I couldn’t tell you who made out like bandits.

Friday night was fun, though. Even before their team was on the clock, you could hear the chant, “Let’s go Jets.”

Welcome back to the NHL, Winnipeg.

In a time when major American sports are cruel to the fan – see the NFL lockout and the impending one in the NBA – this was a win for the little guy.

At the start of the 90s, the NHL needed to expand, especially in the United States. The “western” outposts of the league below the border were the then-Minnesota North Stars, the St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings. And the latter had only become relevant in the summer of 1988 when Wayne Gretzky had arrived on the scene.

The NHL needed teams outside of what was essentially the northeastern quadrant of the United States. Thanks in large part to The Great One’s move to Southern California, hockey moved south.

San Jose got the Sharks through expansion in 1991 – yes, they’re my team, but the San Francisco Bay Area is the sixth-biggest television market in the United States, and the Kings needed some geographic company.

The rush was on. While some of the new American markets definitely deserved teams – most notably Denver with the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas with the Stars – a lot of times they came at the expense of Canadian markets and die-hard U.S. ones.

The Avs have been a tremendous success as witnessed by two Stanley Cups on the ice as well as the development of the game in the state. (See our local junior hockey scene, not to mention the expansion of high school hockey, including the Battle Mountain Huskies.) Colorado needed a team, but it shouldn’t have come at the expense of the Quebec Nordiques.

Ditto for Dallas as the Minnesota North Stars (I still miss those glorious green sweaters with the big “N”) came south. The Hartford Whalers (another awesome uniform) became the Carolina Hurricanes, and Winnipeg’s old Jets transformed into the Phoenix Coyotes.

The NHL was becoming the “National” Hockey League in the United States, but it went overboard. A team in Florida is fine, but two? Carolina, Nashville AND Atlanta? A second L.A. team with the once-Mighty Ducks? And, really, what are the Columbus Blue Jackets?

The NHL nearly got a bigger makeover. For a while, the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins nearly went the way of the dodo bird.

As harmful as the 2004-05 lockout was to the NHL – I still don’t think the sport has recovered with regard to visibility – it leveled the field between big and small markets. The Oilers, Flames, Penguins and Canucks, all once endangered species, have competed in the Stanley Cup Finals since the lockout. (The Penguins won, but, of course, it didn’t hurt to get Sidney Crosby.)

Combine a weaker American dollar and Winnipeg is a viable NHL market again. The Thrashers, Atlanta’s second foray into the NHL, were failing, and the Jets are back.

It is so richly deserved. Winnipeggers are good fans. In 1980, the Jets went 30 games without a win (0-23-7), and still drew 13,265 fans per game. (The old Winnipeg Arena held 15,500, so it was a good average. By the way, the Jets broke their streak by beating the old Colorado Rockies.)

And with the exception of its lame-duck season in 1995-1996 – the team had already announced its move to Phoenix – Jets fans kept the old barn 80-90 percent full, despite the team’s mediocre play. It’s a hockey town.

More chips may fall in the next year or two. The old Jets, the Phoenix Coyotes, are on borrowed time in the Valley of the Sun. If the New York Islanders don’t get a new arena, they’re a candidate for relocation, and there are regular rumblings about the Nashville Predators’ viability. Here’s hoping Quebec can land one of these franchises.

In the meantime, the good guys finally won one.

Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or cfreud@vaildaily.com.

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