Opinion

The Winnipeg Jets logo includes a stylized compass pointing north, which is both a not-so-subtle nod to the ownership group and an indicator of where the franchise intends to go.

The Winnipeg Jets logo includes a stylized compass pointing north, which is both a not-so-subtle nod to the ownership group and an indicator of where the franchise intends to go.

A slow, steady climb towards the top of the NHL’s mountain began in 2011, and the organization nearly reached the summit during a magical spring of 2018. A memorable six-week playoff run, filled with frenzied Whiteouts and raucous downtown street parties, was touted as the start of something special. The excitement was palpable. The connection between the club and hockey-crazed community stronger than ever.

Now, just four years later, the Jets appear to have completely lost their way. The team is broken, closer to competing for the first-overall draft pick than the Stanley Cup. So, too, is the culture that we’re led to believe is an integral part of their DNA.

Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was given another three-year contract. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was given another three-year contract. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Frustrated players are pointing fingers the likes of which you rarely see in professional sports. If guys like Paul Stastny and Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers are being this candid about existing issues in front of the camera, imagine what they’re saying behind closed doors.

I’m told there was a heated players-only meeting last month in Florida, after the Jets had been outscored 13-5 by the Panthers and Lightning on back-to-back nights, where plenty of voices were raised and grievances aired. No coincidence that the truth bombs started getting dropped publicly following the Tampa Bay loss. It’s as if some on the team realized they were banging their heads against a wall, deciding to take their cries for help to the media.

Desperate times, meet desperate measures. Don’t let Kevin Cheveldayoff’s attempted spin and deflection on Monday fool you — this is not normal behaviour, nor is it healthy. It speaks to major internal issues that are finally coming to light, so significant they can’t be ignored or swept under the rug any longer.

Cheveldayoff, the embattled general manager who was cleared earlier this year by the NHL for his role in a 2010 sexual assault scandal in Chicago, has quietly been given a contract extension by ownership despite missing the playoffs for a seventh time in 11 years.

Mark Scheifele is now openly discussing talking to his agent and his family about his next move. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

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Mark Scheifele is now openly discussing talking to his agent and his family about his next move. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

His first move Sunday night, hours after a disappointing season ended, was to leave the entire coaching staff in limbo. Interim bench boss Dave Lowry and assistants Jamie Kompon and Charlie Huddy have been told they are essentially free to re-apply for their current jobs, without actually being dismissed. The writing is clearly on the wall even if the organization is too afraid to say it. It’s a bizarre way to conduct business.

Then came the Mark Scheifele bombshell. The first-ever draft pick of the 2.0-era has turned into a nearly unrecognizable, "me first" player, one who clearly wants a one-way ticket out of town. The same guy who almost single-handedly led the Jets to the Western Conference Final with an incredible seven-game performance against Nashville four years ago is now openly discussing talking to his agent and his family about his next move — despite being under contract for two more seasons.

At this point, it’s impossible to see any scenario where he plays another game with Winnipeg. Scheifele’s as good as gone, with the question turning to what kind of haul Cheveldayoff could get in return. There are reportedly other current members besides Scheifele looking for an exit plan. He’s the only one, so far anyways, who has been so vocal about it. It would be easy to dump on Scheifele for his selfish display, especially with obvious flaws in his defensive game he seems to routinely gloss over, but his frustration follows a disturbing trend.

One-of-a-kind defenceman Dustin Byfuglien mysteriously took his sticks and went home following a 2018-19 season that started strong and then went off a cliff. Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic wanted out, too. Their wishes were granted, just as Jacob Trouba and Evander Kane’s were before them. Andrew Copp, among the most versatile forwards in Jets 2.0 history, went from house-hunting around here to taking his talents to New York when the club couldn’t make signing him long-term a priority.

Kyle Connor (left) and Nikolaj Ehlers have been candid about their disappointment this season. (Chris O'Meara / The Associated Press files)

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Kyle Connor (left) and Nikolaj Ehlers have been candid about their disappointment this season. (Chris O'Meara / The Associated Press files)

Even beloved coach Paul Maurice packed up his whistle and pulled the plug after the Jets followed up a 9-3-3 start this season with just four wins in the next 13 games. He’s apparently seen, and heard, enough from this group. Which should have been the canary in the coal mine.

Off the ice, fan anger — or is it apathy? — appears at an all-time high, with the club failing to sell out a single game all year. The waiting list has vanished. Tickets are struggling to be re-sold under face value. And Canada Life Centre, once the most raucous in the league, has the atmosphere of a public library most nights.

Add it all up and True North should be taking a long, hard look in the mirror and asking itself just what the heck is going on around here. It also should have had chairman and co-owner Mark Chipman in front of a microphone Monday to field questions.

Why are you giving Cheveldayoff at least three more years to fix a mess he most certainly helped create? What are your plans to try to repair an obviously fractured relationship with your loyal fan-base, one that was taken for granted for far too long around here? Would you consider bringing in an independent, outside voice to conduct a thorough review — a president of hockey operations type — to avoid the kind of blind loyalty and tunnel vision that can lead to bad decisions? Are customers getting enough bang for their ever-increasing buck?

Interim head coach Dave Lowry has been told he can apply for his job next year. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Interim head coach Dave Lowry has been told he can apply for his job next year. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Chipman, a respected community leader and strong voice who is as hands-on as any NHL owner, has repeatedly declined interview requests from the Free Press and other outlets over the last couple years. He did make his first public appearance in months last Friday night during the second intermission of the team’s television broadcast, telling rights holder TSN no drastic changes were planned and they will follow Cheveldayoff’s lead into the future. Not exactly an inspiring, rally-the-troops kind of message you’d want in a time of need.

Yes, the global pandemic can be blamed for some of what ails the organization. But there were cracks already forming in the foundation long before we’d heard of COVID-19. And now, we’re staring at a full-blown sinkhole.

The most important off-season in Jets 2.0 history is off to a rocky start. And this franchise could really use a compass as it tries to reverse course and get headed back in the right direction.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.