** Geoff wrote this yesterday, hours before the Jets were hammered by a score of 7-0 against Nashville.**
© Geoff Brookes
It’s different this year.
It used to be easy to hammer away joyously at the keyboard, producing any kind of article on the Winnipeg Jets, our beloved NHL hockey team. It didn’t matter too much what the theme would be – analyzing the Jets’ chances in the upcoming games, dreaming about the future for the upcoming prospects or younger Jets, or marvelling at the play of the Jets’ star players. It was easy to do.
It’s not just that the team has floundered lately; or that Trouba seems to have lost the magic touch for the time being; or that shots that were finding corners earlier this year are now missing the net. These things happen at some point in every season. Players adapt, and they get the good “puck luck” sooner or later.
It’s not just that we’ve finally experienced our “white out” again, only to realize that this team still has a long way to go to be a true playoff contender.
As one Jets fan said to me this past week, “If it wasn’t for the fact that they just came back to Winnipeg, I’d be really mad right now.”
And that’s it. The truth is, the honeymoon is over.
For younger fans, who may not remember much from the NHL Jets 1.0, it’s the realization that this is a very long process, building a contender NHL playoff team.
For fans who remember Jets 1.0 but not the WHA years, it’s the lingering fear that the current team management will not do what it takes to put this team “over the top”; that they will let Hall of Fame players like Hawerchuk, Housley, and Selanne walk out the door, or trade them. (Selanne will be in the Hall, of course.)
I’m not necessarily putting any current Jets in that category yet. I’m just expressing the psychology of the NHL Jets 1.0 era fan. This is our nightmare – our worst fear for Jets 2.0.
WHA era Jets fans remember the “unknown champions” – the 3 time WHA champions who defeated the USSR National team at the old barn. Like the NHL Jets 1.0 era fans, they remember what it’s like to lose great players who could compete with the best in the world (Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson). They remember what it’s like to pay the highest amount ever (at the time) to lure one of the world’s greatest players, Bobby Hull, to play in Winnipeg. Yes – we successfully competed for the best UFA available, and we outbid the class of the NHL to do it. But when has that happened since then?
This is our fear. We fear the treadmill of mediocrity, where we can produce players, but we can’t keep them long term; that the Winnipeg Jets will surge toward being a contender for maybe one or two years – if we’re lucky – and then return to that mushy middle of the NHL; that we’ll make it to the first round of the playoffs in a good year, win a game or two against the top seeded playoff team, and succumb. We’ve done this before, many times, in Jets 1.0 history.
If Jets 2.0 is a track race, then we’ve sprinted out of the gate, near the lead – at least, in terms of our draft and develop game plan. Now, at the turn, we realize we have 10 laps to go, and we wonder if we belong on the same track as the well-funded athletes running next to us.
I believe that this generation of fans will substantially fill the MTS Centre well into the future. Even if it doesn’t sell out every night, it will sell out for the vast majority of games. Yes, faithful reader, a day is coming, and it won’t be too far away, when the building will not be sold out. It’s just the luck of life, when unsold tickets are going on sale now a few days ahead of time. One of those games, there won’t be enough last minute buyers to fill every last seat.
I can tell you this – if the Winnipeg Jets let Dustin Byfuglien (“Buff”) walk away from Winnipeg, it will be a Buff-sized, strategic error. I’m not talking primarily about hockey tactics and strategy, or economic management of the salary cap. I’m talking about the psychology of the Winnipeg Jets fan, whether it is a new fan, an NHL 1.0 fan, or a WHA codger.
It will set off alarm bells in the minds of those fans. Rightly or wrongly, it will trigger their negative memories of the players that have come and gone in Jets history – of the treadmill to mushy mediocrity.
Why do I say Dustin Byfuglien, and not Andrew Ladd?
Byfuglien has a symbolism to the Winnipeg Jets fan. He is widely regarded as a star in the NHL. He's on NHL highlights frequently. He's legendary, in terms of his size and agility. He is one of those athletes who is able to make incredible plays. To the fan, these plays look all the more amazing because he doesn't make them every game – it certainly looks like he can make these plays at will. He delivers absolutely stunning hits that make fans stand up in awe. He's been nominated to the all- star team twice as a Jet.
He is a legitimate star.
If we lose Byfuglien, it's like opening a wound. It's like losing Nilsson, Hedberg, Hawerchuk, Housley and Selanne, all over again. Psychologically, we can lose Andrew Ladd, but we can't lose Byfuglien.
I realize that the hockey and salary cap aspects of signing Big Buff are open to debate. But the effect on the psychology of Jets 2.0 fans is clear to me.