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​Throwback Thursday: NHL Approves Sale of Winnipeg Jets, Kickstarting Move to Arizona

Rumours were already rampant, but when the league's board of governors signed off on the sale of the Jets in 1996, relocation to the desert became a reality.

by Mike Commito
Jan 19 2017, 8:10pm

Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

When Jets fans heard the news that the NHL's board of governors had approved the sale of their team, 21 years ago today, they probably just shrugged it off. After all, it was a rather anticlimactic way to end a tumultuous saga that had been going on for months, which saw the Winnipeg faithful read their club its last rites and bury it several times over. The announcement might have been the team's official obituary notice, but the Jets had already been long dead heading into the 1995-96 season.

Long before the Jets made their unceremonious exit from the NHL, they had been members of the rival World Hockey Association (WHA) dating back to the league's inaugural games in 1972. The Jets enjoyed considerable success in the WHA, where they won the Avco Cup, the league championship, three times in four seasons. But despite having a well-stocked trophy case, financial troubles began creeping up for the Jets as early as the mid 1970s. When the WHA merged with the NHL in 1979, the team's money woes followed it into the big leagues.

For those outside of Winnipeg, few may recall that the team had been hemorrhaging cash for years. The Jets received a stay of execution in November 1991 when the club received a significant injection from business leaders, and the municipal and provincial government. Together, they provided the Jets' owners with a $10-million fund from which to draw annual management fees. In addition to the cash-flow boon, a public corporation consisting of the city and taxpayers of Winnipeg would own 36 percent of the team as part of an agreement wherein it would fund the team's operating losses moving forward. It was believed that this new outlay from local businesses and the two tiers of government would mitigate the Jets' short-term troubles and get them on the runway toward financial stability. Unfortunately, it never took off.

READ MORE: When Jets Rookie Deron Quint Scored Two Goals in Four Seconds

While that deal should have kept the Jets in Winnipeg for the immediate future, the financial situation only got worse. In the years that followed, the Jets were losing millions of dollars each season and were projected to lose as much as $20 million by 1997 if the trend continued.

Teemu Selanne celebrating in trademark fashion during his historic rookie season. Photo via Wiki Commons

Making matters worse was that the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95 only accelerated the team's crash. But even before hockey was put on hiatus, the club was also facing other issues that were complicating its financial crises. By this point, the Winnipeg Arena was already 40 years old and continuous rounds of renovations were only a stop-gap fix in the face of the rapidly aging infrastructure. The team and its owners were also contending with a struggling Canadian dollar. Around this time, the loonie was worth only $0.72 American, which was a significant problem for most Canadian NHL teams that had to pay their players in US currency. In the face of rising salaries, small-market teams like Winnipeg were certainly feeling the pinch.

And, of course, these problems were only exacerbated by the fact that the product on the ice was not exactly optimal. Sure, the Jets had some good matchups against the Oilers in the postseason, and Teemu Selanne's 76-goal rookie campaign in 1992-93 was nothing short of electric, but overall, compared to the Avco Cup days in the WHA, the NHL Jets were mediocre at best. In the season before the lockout, the Jets were drawing 12,500 fans a game, which was 2,000 below the league average. So when hockey resumed in mid-January 1995, it wasn't all that surprising that less than 10,000 fans were showing up at Jets home games. Part of that was certainly a backlash to the league's imposed work stoppage, but when Winnipeg took on Anaheim in its second game, the team was booed off the ice. The Jets ended up bottoming out in their division that season, finishing with a record of 16-25-7, and a goal differential of -20. The only reason they didn't finish even lower in the overall standings was because they were being propped up by the fact that newly-minted expansion teams in Tampa Bay, Anaheim, and Ottawa were not yet competitive.

But things would only get worse in the offseason. Just when it looked like the Jets resolved their financial issues, they were stymied in April 1995. The team was supposed to be sold to a Winnipeg business consortium that would spearhead a campaign to fund a desperately needed arena project, but the deal fell through in the 11th hour. Many blamed the league, citing that the NHL had imposed restrictions on the transaction that would have made it cost prohibitive for the new owners to sell the team should they see fit. Evidently, while it's arguable that the league wanted to try to keep the Jets in Winnipeg, its chief motivation was to keep a clear path to lucrative American markets where expansion fees could be collected rather than transfer fees. In the wake of the deal collapsing, Winnipeg mayor Susan Thompson, according to the Globe and Mail, reportedly said she would make a plea to Prime Minister Jean Chretien to intervene in the matter, but if Parliament didn't come to the rescue when Gretzky was traded, what shot did the Jets have?

Now, with the local solution shelved, many speculated that this would leave the door open for the Jets to be purchased by a US buyer. That's how it appeared, anyway, a month later when Richard Burke and Steven Glucksternplanned to buy the team and move it to Minneapolis. But that deal also fizzled, leaving Winnipeg with another opportunity to come up with a Plan B. By August, it looked as though a local consortium, the Spirit of Manitoba, was going to make the purchase, but that effort also fell apart at the last minute when the group failed to gather enough money to buy the team and cover its existing losses. This allowed Burke and Gluckstern a second chance, along with Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, to successfully purchase the team. When details of the tentative sale were first announced, it wasn't clear where the team would be playing the following year, but with the inclusion of Colangelo, it was apparent that the team was destined for the Sun Belt, which would be confirmed a few short months later. So over the course of that summer, Jets fans' emotions would have run the spectrum. Their team was nearly salvaged, then it was dead, then it was nearly resurrected, and then it was sold. But rather than losing the team outright, Winnipeg had one more season with the Jets, but by that point it must have been more akin to an 82-game funeral march.

Perhaps knowing the end was coming might have made the process easier for Jets fans. It allowed them to focus on the hockey rather than the financial issues that had plagued the team for years, and maybe, just maybe, help them prepare for the eventual loss. But for some, the end came even sooner. Selanne, who had been a fan favourite since his rookie days, saw his tenure in Winnipeg end in early February when he was dealt to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in a three-player trade. The move wasn't a total surprise, though, as Selanne had been the subject of trade speculation for weeks. Still, that didn't soften the blow. While Jets fans grieved the loss of the Finnish Flash, the move also had consequences in Phoenix. Selanne would have been a top draw for fans in the desert, and in fact, the new management group had already been marketing him as a way to entice season-ticket purchases.

Speaking of marketing, before the Jets had even played their final regular-season home game, the Phoenix group announced that the team would be known as the Coyotes and would have a kachina-inspired logo, along with a palate of colours that included dark green, brick, purple, sand, and black. The team's new name was decided by a competition that drew more than 10,000 entries, with the Coyotes bagging the most support. The runner up was the Scorpions, a moniker that Winnipeg fans could certainly relate to as they undoubtedly felt the sting of seeing their club rebranded before it even played its last NHL contest.

While the new ownership group might have been overzealous in its efforts, the Jets were not going to go quietly into the night. They ended up making a late-season push and qualified for the playoffs. In doing so, they were slated to face the Detroit Red Wings, a team that went 62-13-7 that season and boasted seven future Hall of Famers. No one expected the Jets to make that a competitive series, but they pushed the Presidents' Trophy winners to six games. After the Jets were blown out 6-1 at home in the fourth game, many believed that was quite possibly the last NHL game played in Winnipeg. The odds of beating Detroit in an elimination game at Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings had only lost three games that entire season, was extremely unlikely. But Nikolai Khabibulin never got that memo. He had the performance of a lifetime, turning aside 51 of the 52 shots he faced. His team was only able to muster 19 shots, but that was all it needed to put two past Chris Osgood and add an empty netter. Khabibulin's heroics allowed the Jets to bring the series back to Winnipeg for another decisive game. While they would fall to the Red Wings, they gave their fans a proper send off with one last game at home, where Norm MacIver would score the final goal in Winnipeg Jets history.

So after months of drama, the Jets' 23-year history of big-league hockey in Winnipeg came to an end. The city wouldn't be without professional hockey for too long, though, as the Minnesota Moose of the International Hockey League were purchased and relocated to Winnipeg for 1996-97. The Jets weren't the NHL's only relocation casualties of the mid 1990s, either. The following season proved to be the Whalers' last in Hartford, before moving to Raleigh. Fittingly, the Coyotes first NHL game was actually against the Whalers, an ominous sign of things to come for hockey fans in Connecticut. Not to mention that around this same time, hockey fans in Edmonton also had to deal with Peter Pocklington's shenanigans of threatening to move the Oilers to Minnesota or Hamilton or whatever destination he was leaning toward on a given day.

But the Jets' relocation story came full circle when NHL hockey returned in 2011 after the league's experiment in Atlanta failed for a second time. While there's no question that the city of Winnipeg was overjoyed to welcome back their beloved Jets, it's been five years and fans are still waiting to see a successful product on the ice.

Although the team qualified for the postseason in 2015, they've yet to win a playoff game since returning to Winnipeg, and fans are starting to grow impatient. While some have suggested that the team is in danger of another lost season, its only two points out a playoff spot and will get a huge boost when Patrik Laine eventually returns to the lineup. Sure, the goaltending is a mess, and the return of Ondrej Pavelec isn't likely to solve that, but it could always be worse. Twenty years ago, Manitoba didn't have an NHL team. Today, the Jets are back, and it's only a matter of time before they zero in on postseason success.