This is an interview I conducted with Lauren Robb of WpgJetsOnline via e-mail, talking about his experiences with the whole saga of a team moving back to Winnipeg. All of the words not in italics are his and unedited. The words in italics are my questions.
1. How have the last 15 years been like without a team in Winnipeg for you?
Back when the Jets first left I was heartbroken and angry and lost interest in NHL Hockey. At that same time, my Mother was battling Cancer which she inevitably passed away from in December of 1997. It was a horrible time all round.
Mark Chipman and the True North group brought in the Manitoba Moose as a way of keeping Professional Hockey alive in Winnipeg. I never attended the games. That was until around 2003 when my interest in Hockey was sparked again. That is when I started researching articles on the Winnipeg Jets. Not because I wanted to start a website dedicated to them but rather as a means of remembering our cities past and my childhood.
I found JetsOwner.com. I was blown away. Somebody else was also thinking about the Winnipeg Jets but, he thought that if the stars align properly, that the NHL could one day return to Winnipeg. I would visit Darren Ford’s website daily to see if there was any new news. He had a link on his site which was supposed to give his website visitor’s a location where they could learn about the history of the Winnipeg Jets. This site, which I won’t name, had tons of information but the site owner was very negative and didn’t want to be affiliated with Darren’s site and made it known right on his home page.
After visiting his site for quite a few months I began to think that I could design a website that Darren could link to which would contain information on the Winnipeg Jets’ history and would be a site for the fans by the fans. After I completed version 1 of my website WinnipegJetsOnline.com I contacted Darren and mentioned to him that if he was interested, he could link to my website and vice versa. He agreed.
Darren Ford initially started his website using self taught HTML code. Since I was a web designer fresh out of College, I approached him and asked if he would like my help re-designing JetsOwner.com. I explained that I wouldn’t want any money but rather just credit on the footer of his website. It took a few months but with Darren’s input, I re-designed JetsOwner.com. I designed the layout and Darren supplied the content. JetsOwner.com was only re-designed once and stands today as one of the highest visited websites when searching Winnipeg Jets.
After a few years had passed, my assistance with JetsOwner.com trailed off as Darren had become more familiar with the site and more web savvy. During this time, WinnipegJetsOnline.com was becoming a highly visited website. Each time the Winnipeg Jets were mentioned in the news, my site would see spikes in traffic. As the years went on and the Southern NHL teams began to show signs of failure, the media started contacting me asking for a fans perspective on the Southern NHL teams. It really all started when the Pittsburgh Penguins were in trouble and needed a new arena. Winnipeg was used a leverage or as a threat of relocation. Next came the Nashville Predators and the Phoenix Coyotes. And finally the Atlanta Thrashers.
Once MTS Centre was built, my interest in the Manitoba Moose grew. My buddies and I would attend about 4-5 games a season and as many playoff games as possible. I never really latched onto the team simply because you never really felt that you could relate to the players. Whenever the players showed signs of strength, they were moved to the NHL. That one point has always bothered me.
Over the existence of WinnipegJetsOnline.com social media such as Facebook and Twitter really took off. I created a Twitter account called WpgJetsOnline. Today I have 1,243 followers. My website which started off as simply a website for Darren Ford to link to has become the #2 site listed in Google search results when ‘Winnipeg Jets’ is searched for, receives an average of 200 hits a day and has really become like a third child to me (I have 1 son and 1 daughter).
So as you can see, many Hockey fans have lived without the Jets for 15 years. Me? I have had the Winnipeg Jets in my life for as long as I can remember. I have kept the team’s memory alive through the only way I know how, my website. It would be impossible to bring my Mom back to life but as for the Winnipeg Jets…it was possible.
2. When in the last 15 years did you begin to think that a team may eventually come back to Winnipeg?
The moment I visited Darren Ford’s JetsOwner.com. The first day that I hit his site, I read it section by section, page by page. He made some interesting points and really opened my eyes to the fact that the NHL returning to Winnipeg could be possible if certain events happened. A new building, a restructuring of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and obviously, an Owner. 2003 was the turning point when I truly believed that NHL Hockey could, one day, return to Winnipeg.
3. Did you have a personal preference as to whether the Coyotes or Thrashers moved to Winnipeg?
Obviously I would’ve liked the Coyotes to have relocated here not because of the players but because all of our previous team history belongs with that franchise. It stings to know that the statistics and records of all the players that we as a city all witnessed and cheered for remain with a franchise located in a market that just doesn’t respect the team or the game the same way we do. That is our city’s history and should remain here. The slate should’ve been wiped clean when the team relocated.
As much as I would’ve liked to have the Coyotes franchise relocate back to Winnipeg, the former Atlanta Thrashers team is much better. A young group of guys who have gelled well and have some future stars in their lineup. It’s sad that the ownership group, Atlanta Spirit, wasn’t committed to the team and let it sink the way it did. I do think that the right team has relocated to Winnipeg. I can’t wait until we play Phoenix for the very first time. I think we’ve got a rivalry on our hands.
4. The last 2 years have been an emotional rollercoaster for hockey fans in Winnipeg. Did you ever give up hope that a team would come back?
Never. I don’t know if it’s a Winnipeg thing or if it’s simply just me but I have a hard time letting go of the past. I wanted Winnipeg to be back in the NHL so bad that I verbally fought all the naysayers who didn’t think it would ever happen. I kept things positive. I’ve taught my kids about the Winnipeg Jets.
It seems that with friends and family, we all are labeled as the _____ guy. If you like Star Wars, then you’re the Star Wars guy. Everybody knows to come to you if they have Star Wars questions. If you like Mustangs then your friends label you as the Mustang Guy. For birthdays and Christmas, everybody knows it’s a safe bet to buy you something to do with Mustangs and you’ll love it. Well, I’ve been labeled the Winnipeg Jets Guy. My collection of Jets memorabilia has not grown because I buy things for myself but rather because people know it’s a safe bet to buy me Winnipeg Jets stuff. Hard not to believe that a team is coming back when all I wear is Jets clothes.
5. May 31st will now be a day etched in the memory of Winnipeg forever. What are your fondest memories of that day (I know it was only 10 days ago)?
Seeing as I work for the radio station that had the broadcast rights to Winnipeg Jets games back when they were here last, CJOB 68, I was assigned to witness and digitally document the True North NHL press conference at Portage and Main. My fondest memory was when Mark Chipman said “…I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers”. At that very moment, instead of watching the massive digital billboard that was broadcasting the press conference, I turned around and watched the crowd of over 3,000 Hockey fans cheer, applaud and cry. It finally came true. We were back in the NHL. Once again, the thought that a Stanley Cup parade could one day march down the streets of Winnipeg was not a dream but a reality.
6. The name for the team is a hotly debated subject, and I want the name to be Jets also. Will the name of the team change what you think of it?
Absolutely not. As much as I would love to see our new team be called the Winnipeg Jets, that’s not what I’ve been fighting for all these years. I have not been fighting to get the Jets back but rather I have been fighting to have NHL Hockey return to Winnipeg. I wanted our city to be back in the big leagues.
I have heard quite a few team names thrown around. The Manitoba Falcons, Polar Bears, Ice, Blizzard, Whiteout, Moose. Reports were coming out weeks prior to the True North press conference that a team name, logo and jersey were already created. Once True North made the announcement, they could’ve simply stated the teams name but they didn’t.
Once word got out that True North Sports & Entertainment was in negotiations with the Atlanta Spirit Group, fans the world over have made their opinions be known that if a team does relocate back to Winnipeg that it should be called the Jets. Many online polls have been made all of which support the Jets name. There is even an online petition that has close to 13,000 names on it all stating that the team should be called the Jets. Personally I believe that True North is feeling the pressure of making a grave mistake in calling the team something other than the Winnipeg Jets. I believe that they are currently redesigning the Winnipeg Jets logo and will be unveiling it in the upcoming week. I’d love nothing more than to have our new NHL team be called the Jets but if True North decides to use a complete new name, that’s just fine with me. I just want a new jersey and hat to add to my collection.
7. If you could say anything to Atlanta fans right now about losing a team, what would you tell them?
I know how you feel. It hurts. It sucks and it’s maddening. Our situation was different from Atlanta’s. Thrashers fans didn’t know that the season that just wrapped up was their last season. In 1995-96 we knew that was the last season for our Jets. We knew they were headed for Phoenix so we were able to attend as many games as we could. We were able to prepare ourselves for the reality that we’re no longer strong enough to be in the NHL. Atlanta Thrashers fans simply thought that the last regular season game was simply that, the last regular season game this year. They took it for granted that there would be more games.
It’s tough to try and offer encouraging words to Thrashers’ fans. This is the second time an NHL franchise has left the city of Atlanta. And, it’s the second time a franchise has relocated to a Canadian city. I would be a tough, tough sell to have NHL Hockey return to Atlanta now that they’ve unfortunately failed twice.
8. Even though the history of the Thrashers was short, it did have a tragic moment when they lost Danny Snyder. Do you want the new team to retire 37 in honor of him along with 9 and 25, because the Thrashers did not?
As unfortunate as the death of Danny Snyder was, I don’t like that the previous city’s team history moves with the franchise. As I had talked about in the answer to your first question, when a team relocates, the slate should be wiped clean. So, should Winnipeg honor a player who played 3 seasons, scored 11 goals and earned 16 points? I don’t particularly think so. No disrespect to Snyder but he wasn’t a stellar player. He may have been a wonderful person but he wasn’t an all-star who deserves to have his number retired.
9. When the original Jets left in 1996, it obviously left a void in many people’s hearts in Winnipeg. Does the return of a team completely fill that void, or has time slowly healed the wound?
The void is almost filled. It’s true, the confidence of the city of Winnipeg dropped when the Jets packed up and left for Phoenix. It was a huge hit to our self esteem and pride. A Canadian game had been taken over by American businessmen and removed from a proud, loyal and passionate Hockey market. Don’t get me wrong, I love the United States. I have never been one to throw stones but, this was the belief at the time. We didn’t want to believe that the relocation of the Jets had anything to do with the ownership or the management of the franchise. Our team was being moved to a State where the only ice that forms can only be found in a freezer.
When will the void be completely filled? When True North finally unveils our NHL team’s name. And when that first puck is dropped.
10. Do you think in the current NHL environment that this new Winnipeg team can be successful for 10, 20, 30 years?
Absolutely. It’s cliché to say this but, you never really appreciate what you have until it’s gone. Mistakes were made back when we had the Winnipeg Jets. Not to mention economics had a lot to do with how the team was run and how it was supported.
One factor that has to be mentioned is how Mark Chipman and True North have run the Manitoba Moose franchise. The Moose have been one of the most successful teams in terms of fan support, management and on ice product. Since day one, the Manitoba Moose franchise has been handled as if it were an NHL franchise. True North is a complete 180 from the Winnipeg Jets ownership group. I have nothing but the utmost respect and confidence that True North will develop a winning team on and off the ice.
It took 3 days to sell out 13,000 season tickets. 17 minutes to sell out the last 5,000 when the general public were able to purchase them. True North has a season ticket waiting list that has been capped off at 8,000 names. We have secured the NHL in Winnipeg for the next 5 years. Add the 8,000 people on the waiting list and you’ve got an NHL franchise that isn’t going anywhere.