The new press box is almost finished, season-ticket holders are coming down to the MTS Centre to get their seat assignments and trucks are arriving daily from Atlanta full of equipment but the most important step the Winnipeg Jets took towards their second go-round in the NHL may have been getting a long-term commitment from Andrew Ladd.
Ladd, 25, who was the team captain before the Atlanta Thrashers moved north, will probably continue in that role with the Jets now that he gave up a chance to be a free agent and signed a five-year contract. What is important about this signing is not the reasonable average salary of $4.4-million (all currency U.S.) a year for someone who had 59 points last season to lead the team in scoring, but getting a player who is eager to sell the team and the city to current and prospective teammates.
Image is a sensitive topic in Winnipeg, where the locals endure endless jokes about the long, frigid winters and the perception their city is a cultural backwater. The city will never be a preferred destination for most NHL free agents, so the team will have to work hard to keep the players it has and attract others.
In Ladd, who flew up to Winnipeg on his own dime shortly after the move was announced to meet co-owner Mark Chipman, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and to look around the city, the Jets appear to have a true believer. Shortly after his visit, Ladd raved about the new management team to his teammates and told them Winnipeg will be a good place to play and live.
When Ladd, who comes from Maple Ridge, B.C., was asked on a conference call if players have misconceptions about Winnipeg he said, "I'm sure they do. It falls along the same lines as Buffalo in terms of maybe gets a bad rap. But when guys play there and get the opportunity to play there in Winnipeg, I think they're going to grow to love it and make it home."
Chipman agrees that signing Ladd was "absolutely very important," but plays down the idea that players are reluctant to play in Winnipeg. He says Ladd's importance is his leadership - he has two Stanley Cups on his résumé, 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes and 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks.
"If you talk to guys who played here, like Kris King or Ed Olczyk or Teemu Selanne, there might be concern about coming here but the concern is generally gone shortly after," Chipman said. Any image problem, he added, is "a small one maybe but one we can overcome."
Another handicap Chipman and Cheveldayoff have to overcome is a lack of time to prepare for the 2011-12 season. The move to Winnipeg was announced a month ago and even though the 15,000-seat MTS Centre was mostly NHL-ready, there were no shortage of jobs to be done, from building a new press box to hiring staff to replace those not retained from the Thrashers to negotiating local broadcast contracts to designing a new logo and uniforms.
"There are times you sit and look at the list and sometimes the bottom of the list gets longer before the top of the list gets crossed off," Cheveldayoff said. "But it's good. There's lots of energy, lots of emotion, lots from the fans and lots in the front office."
Cheveldayoff's immediate task is to get the Jets' remaining restricted free agents signed - defenceman Zach Bogosian, 21, and forwards Blake Wheeler, who is seeking contract arbitration, and Ben Maxwell.
Once those three players are signed, the Jets will be close to next season's minimum payroll of $48.3-million. They went into last weekend's free-agent market considerably lower than that and some fans grumbled when they did not throw a lot of money around, electing to sign lower-profile players like defenceman Randy Jones and forwards Tanner Glass and Rick Rypien.
"It's not so much hitting the [cap]floor as finding the right players to fill our roster," Cheveldayoff said. "We're not looking at particular numbers in that regard."
The GM said he may still sign an unrestricted free agent or two or make a trade in the next month or do. He will also be helping new head coach Claude Noel hire assistant coaches and looking for some scouts once the free-agent period settles down.
On the business side, the Jets had most of their staff in place because the team owner, True North Sports and Entertainment, already operated the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League (which moved to St. John's).
However, the fans are still waiting for Chipman to unveil the new logo, team colours and uniform. Reebok, the NHL's uniform manufacturer, is expected to have a prototype ready later this month but the new sweaters will not be ready for fans to buy until September.
While Chipman said he and his staff have told Reebok what they are looking for, he was reluctant to say if the red, white and blue colours of the first edition of the Jets will make a comeback. The new uniforms will be completely different from the old Jets uniforms and the old colours may only be part of a new look.
"The emphasis is on other colours and maybe the introduction of new colours," said Chipman, who stopped short of saying red, white and blue are definitely out. "But [the uniforms]will be straightforward with a traditional look and feel."
Chipman is also in the midst of negotiating local radio and television contracts, with TSN and Rogers Sportsnet thought to be the major bidders on the TV side. All Chipman would say is the talks are "meaningful" with no news to report.
The only major initiative that will not be in place for the start of the season is a sports bar near the arena which will have video lottery terminals expected to provide $4-million (Canadian) a year for the arena. Chipman said that will be up and running some time in 2012.