Sports  It’s hockey year in Canada

Return of Winnipeg Jets pleases fans while posing larger questions to the NHL

Season tickets for the newly relocated Winnipeg Jets sold out in less than thirty seconds. To unveil the new jerseys, the team had four players step off a Hercules jet at an airfield full of servicemen, team officials, and, most importantly, fans. Andrew Ladd, a forward for the team, summed it up best at a press conference by saying, “It’s fun to have this excitement around the team. Unveiling the jerseys turns into something like this… I don’t think anything surprises me anymore.”

Suffice it to say, for Andrew Ladd and many other players on the Winnipeg Jets, this was a level of excitement they hadn’t seen in Atlanta, where the team was previously located. The shocking move took the Atlanta Thrashers from a market that was ambivalent about hockey to one that was hockey-starved for years, after having lost their team to Phoenix, Arizona. The relocation of the Thrashers to Winnipeg forces the NHL to make many changes that will shape the league for years to come.

The first major change the NHL will be forced to make in the wake of this relocation is conference realignment. Currently, Winnipeg remains in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference, playing with teams from Florida, North Carolina, and Washington D.C. The team’s move was announced at a date that made it impossible for the NHL to change the conferences, and keep their schedule intact. So, Winnipeg must remain an outlier in their division. The teams in the Southeast division will now have to take longer flights to and from Winnipeg. This is both a logistical nightmare for organizations, and a discomforting situation for players, who will have to spend more time traveling instead of practicing or resting. To try to mitigate this, the schedule-makers have set Winnipeg up for many alternating home stands and road trips, hoping to reduce travel. This is different than many teams, especially on the East coast, who play alternating home and away games over the course of many weeks. The increased travel time for Eastern teams coming to Winnipeg may also create an extra home ice advantage for the Jets, who will be playing with more rest on many nights.

The NHL has plans for realignment in place, moving Winnipeg to the Western Conference. Still, they need to decide which Western team will be moved into the East.  The most viable candidates, geographically, are Columbus, Detroit, and Nashville. There are rumours floating around that Detroit has a long-standing, unwritten pact with the NHL to be the first team moved to the Eastern conference if ever there was realignment.  Nashville, however, would probably be the most logical choice, as they would fit nicely into the Southeastern division of the Eastern conference, and Winnipeg would fit well in Nashville’s Central division, with Chicago, Detroit, Minnesota, and St.Louis as part of the Western conference.

The dust from these moves will most likely settle by the 2012 season, but there could be many more changes coming for the NHL. The relocation from Atlanta to Winnipeg is a shot across the bow to Gary Bettman’s “Southern Strategy”, in which teams were placed or relocated to big markets in the southern United States. Bettman, the NHL commissioner, thought he could maximize revenue for the league by placing the NHL teams in bigger TV markets such as Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, Phoenix, Raleigh, and Tampa Bay. Bettman failed to accurately evaluate the value of hockey in these markets, where it barely snows and ponds never turn into ice thick enough to skate on. There was no large intrinsic market for hockey in these places, but Bettman still thought the sport could win people over.

For the most part, it hasn’t. The only times these teams get a significant amount of attention is when they are successful (such as when Tampa Bay played in the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals). Otherwise, the fans remain largely indifferent. Relocation looms large for many of these Southern teams, with rumours of placing teams in Hamilton, Hartford, Quebec City, or putting another team in Toronto. The NHL will now have to decide if they want to try and continue the “Southern Strategy” or mostly abandon it, keeping only the teams that have established a strong fan base, and moving most of the unsuccessful teams to cities that tend to care more about the NHL and hockey in general. These cities would offer more dedicated fans (which means more merchandise sales), as well as more TV viewership, but would also deflate ad revenue gained by the league, especially if they were not American teams.

The NHL has these tough decisions to make as it faces a critical point in its history. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, the league has been steadily growing in popularity in the American market and is gaining fans back every day.  The league has also signed a huge new TV deal with Versus, a sports network owned by NBC, giving them some stability for the next decade. This season, if the NBA lockout continues and games start to be cancelled, the NHL will have the most exposure it has had in quite some time. How the league reacts to the myriad of issues facing it now in terms of relocation and realignment, especially in light of the league’s growing popularity, will play a large part in the league’s success for the foreseeable future.

And what of the Jets themselves? While the local populace  of Winnipeg bursts with excitement, what are the team’s realistic prospects this season? Well, it is still essentially the same team as last year’s Atlanta Thrashers, who finished 13th in the conference and 13 points out of the playoffs. In the off-season, they most notably brought in right-wingers Eric Fehr and Kyle Wellwood to add some scoring and playmaking to the front lines. The goalie position is weak, though, with a platoon between Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason. One also has to worry about Dustin Byfuglien, the versatile offensive defenseman, who was charged with BUI (yes, that’s a B for boating) during the off-season and was weighed at around 300 pounds, way over his reported playing weight.

These incidents set a negative tone for the start of their season. With many of last year’s playoff teams in the East improving in the off-season, like the Buffalo Sabres and the New York Rangers, it seems hard to envision Winnipeg being a realistic contender for anything but 8th place in the conference, and even that will be an uphill battle. Despite this, there is a buzz around the team that the players haven’t experienced in a while, and, most importantly, the Winnipeg fans, very deservedly, finally have their Jets back.