The NHL’s Winnipeg Myth

winnipeg jets logoThe Winnipeg Jets’ third season since “returning” to Canada has ended up in the same place as the first two: out of the playoffs. Snarky Laura wants to (ok, did) tweet: “So having passionate, knowledgeable fans doesn’t magically turn a team with middling talent and a poor GM into winners? Who knew?”

I knew. What I don’t know is where this fans-holding-the-team-accountable-will-make-them-champions myth came about. The fans don’t play the game or make decisions about the team and organization. If True North, the Jets’ owners, replace GM Kevin Cheveldayoff it won’t be due to the bile of a thousand bitching bloggers. It’ll be because they care about and understand hockey and they want to win.

That’s something the Thrashers never had. The Thrashers had comically litigious basketball-loving sycophants who were saddled with a hockey team they couldn’t wait to “sell or otherwise dispose of.” Atlanta Spirit Group was early-film Jimmy Dugan in “A League of their Own”:

NHL: Now, ASG, you have some pretty good athletes here. You ought to give them a little bit of your…

ASG: [interrupting] Athletes?! We don’t have athletes, we’ve got hockey players. Hockey players are what you watch to see people beat the crap out of each other, not, not what you watch when you want to see real sports!

[spits sues someone else]

NHL: If we ignore you a little bit more, ASG, do you think you could be just a little more apathetic?

ASG: [brightly] HEY LOOK, THE BASKETBALLERS!

Meanwhile, Jets players continue to play poorly, despite being surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable fans (and Winnipeggers truly are that). Players like Ondrej Pavelec:

“All goalies, not just me, are supposed to win. And we haven’t won enough games here. So the goalie is going to get blamed. That’s the way the NHL works in Canada. It’s that way for me in the Czech Republic, too,” said Pavelec. “The people care. That’s why the media is always here. That’s a good thing. In Atlanta, nobody cared. There was no media. That’s no good. We need people to care about what we do.”

Caring fans and swarming media haven’t improved your pathetic play Pavs, have they?

Then there’s the “we need fans/media to care about what we do [and by extension hold us accountable so we will try harder to win]” attitude wielded by so many Jets. Why do they need motivation from the fans? Shouldn’t they want to do their best every night no matter if there are 20,000 or 2,000 fans watching? Shouldn’t they want to win every game? To play hard for each other and take pride in their performances?

I work in radio. If I know I’m doing a bad show or if I make a mistake – say I give up a four-rating-point lead and fail to finish in the top eight shows in the market – I don’t wait around for an avalanche of fan (e)mail telling me how lousy I sound. I want to do better. I try harder. I take responsibility for my work. It doesn’t matter if I have one listener or one million. I want to do my best every. single. time. This concept of personal accountability seems foreign to Jets players.

“In Atlanta you didn’t really have to answer to anyone other than the coach or the guys in the room. Here the fans get on you, there’s people asking questions after every game. There’s a little more pressure.” – Bryan Little. Playing for your teammates isn’t enough? That Winnipeg’s number-one center needs external pressure in order to be inspired enough to play his best should be disconcerting to all Jets fans.

This nice little trollalicious piece from Kirk Penton of the Winnipeg Sun blames the Thrashers for Winnipeg’s continued failures. And you know what? He’s right. The Thrashers finished out of the playoffs all but once. Why anyone ever bought into the myth that exporting a bad team to a hockey-mad market would suddenly make them a good team is beyond me. In fact, I postulate that myth is part of the reason the Jets’ woes continue. The players, the fans, the NHL all crowed that the team’s problems would be solved with a change of venue and the vocal, vociferous support of Canadians. Yet the team has not improved. That the players continue to hang their loser-hats on the shelf of fan (and media) participation is simply a symptom of the lack of accountability endemic in the Thrashers. Penton and others basically say the Thrashers were permitted to accept mediocrity for so long that it’s “been impossible to wash the stench of the Atlanta Thrashers off the Winnipeg Jets.” That’s spot on (though in three years True North has done little to launder out the smell, keeping the rotten core intact and making the same sort of poor personnel decisions). ASG’s modus operandi - do the minimum possible to put any product on the ice and blame the fans for failure – trickled down to the team, where it still lives today.

We Atlanta fans knew that all along. We were smart enough not to buy into the lie that we could ever impact owners who had nothing but disdain for us and our sport, and players who constantly looked outside the glass for a fall guy for their failures. Turns out we were pretty knowledgeable after all.

It’s a shame the NHL’s Winnipeg Myth played a part in the league’s decision to take away my team. Gary Bettman spun a tale of magical winter nights in Manitoba and used this fairy tale as justification to abandon Atlanta. Instead of doing the work to find us new owners, like he did in Dallas, New Jersey, Buffalo, Phoenix and Florida, he stirred up the frenzied fantasies of Winnipeg fans and used the billowing haze to make our disgust appear as apathy.

But now that the smoke has cleared the truth is laid bare: neither myth or multitudes, magic or media can turn a neglected bird into an supersonic airplane. As long as the Jets try to fly on the contrails of a myth, they’ll never get off the ground.

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