When Diane Olson was moving to Phoenix from Winnipeg in the spring of 1996 to launch a real estate business, the Winnipeg Jets were right with her.
"One of the flight attendants told me that some of the players' wives and kids were on the plane," Olson recalled. A huge Jets fan, Olson had shared the city's disappointment at the club's departure and she was part of group that tried to save the team. "It was one of the saddest things to happen to Winnipeg," she said.
But now the Jets are back in Winnipeg and in Phoenix too, at least for one game Saturday. Olson can barely contain her excitement. She's rented a box at the Jobing.com arena with a group of friends, all Canadians, and proudly wore her old Winnipeg Jets jersey around Phoenix this week despite the 38C temperature, winning applause from a couple of hockey fans from Edmonton. "It's incredible," she said. "It's the old Jets against the new Jets."
Technically Saturday's game is an away game for the Jets and the home opener for the Coyotes. But with plane loads of Winnipeggers arriving all week and many owning second homes in the Phoenix area, the Jets could have the upper hand as far as crowd support. "When we saw this game on the schedule we said 'We've got to be there'," said Paul Kuzina, who arrived from Winnipeg with seven friends and family members. The group has also rented a box for the game and brought a 12-foot long banner saying "Go Jets Go."
For many Jets fans there's an added bonus in coming to the game. It's a chance to gloat and say "I told you so" to the NHL for thinking hockey would work better in the barren desert than the frozen prairie. "Oh yeah, it's a real 'in your face' moment," said Harold Nachtigall, a Winnipeg chiropractor who flew in for the game.
It's easy to see why. The fortunes of the Jets, Coyotes, Winnipeg and Phoenix, couldn't have turned out more differently.
When the Jets left for Phoenix, the American Southwest was booming and the consensus was that professional sports teams couldn't survive in places such as Winnipeg, with their struggling economies, outdated arenas and poorly financed ownership.
And now? Winnipeg's economy is among the strongest in Canada, the city has a new downtown arena and the Jets' owners are flush with cash. Meanwhile Phoenix got crushed by the recent recession and is recovering so slowly one local economist described it as a "painful grind." Unemployment is roughly 9 per cent, the housing market is among the worst in the United States and the dream of building a massive sports and entertainment complex in the suburb of Glendale has bitten the dust.
Last month lenders owed nearly $100-million took back control of the Westgate City Center, a sprawling retail, restaurant and theatre complex adjacent to the Jobing.com arena. Westgate's developers, who also briefly owned the Coyotes, vowed the complex would transform Glendale into a sports mecca and the city jumped on board, spending $180-million building the arena. The project never lived up to the hype and buckled under debt. A foreclosure auction last month couldn't even attract the minimum $40-million bid, leaving lenders to take possession. Lenders owed another $200-million plan a future auction for 95 acres of mostly vacant land around the site, once earmarked for Westgate's expansion.
The Coyotes' future doesn't look much better. The club is under NHL ownership for the second season and the city is covering most of the operating losses while it searches for a buyer. One bidder, Matthew Hulsizer, walked away last summer and the city says two new bidders have emerged. One is Chicago businessman Jerry Reinsdorf, who has tried and failed to buy the club.
There's also a string of lawsuits still in court stemming from the botched move by former owner Jerry Moyes to put the club into bankruptcy protection in 2009. He hoped to sell it to Jim Balsillie, co-head of Research in Motion Ltd., who wanted to move the club to Hamilton. The NHL stepped in and bought the Coyotes for $140-million. Now the league is suing Moyes for $50-million alleging he abused the bankruptcy process. Moyes denies the allegations. As for Balsillie, he's facing pressure from RIM shareholders who claim his ill-fated quest for a hockey team distracted him from RIM, which is struggling.
The team "remains a work in progress," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said last week. Bettman wants a new owner in place for next season and he's believed to be seeking $170-million for the club. That seems high given that the Buffalo Sabres, playing in a better hockey market, sold recently for $175-million and bids for the St. Louis Blues have been just over $100-million. The Jets' owners, True North Sports & Entertainment, paid an estimated $170-million for the Atlanta Thrashers, which included a $60-million relocation fee. The NHL might consider moving the Coyotes, but only if no local buyer is found. And Bettman has made it clear moving franchises is not a league priority.
On the ice, the Coyotes look competitive and they are coming off a 5-2 win in Nashville on Thursday. But their fan support is tentative. Phoenix ranked near the bottom in league attendance last season and while a big crowd is expected Saturday, tickets can be had for less than $20.
"We're cautiously optimistic that we'll get the support we need," said general manager Don Maloney, referring to the team's future. When asked about what could be an overwhelmingly Winnipeg crowd Saturday, Maloney laughed and replied: "As long as they come down and buy tickets, they can come back any time."