If a talented, exciting hockey team goes on a lengthy, successful run and no one is around to cheer it, does it make a sound?
That's the multimillion-dollar question the Winnipeg Jets might be facing later this spring, given the lost revenues if Bell MTS Place remains empty for the foreseeable future while the club keeps racking up the wins. There have been 16 money-losing, eerily quiet home dates so far this season, with another dozen slated before the puck drops on the Stanley Cup playoffs in mid-May.
Jets players are taking care of the on-ice business and making plenty of noise around the NHL, with a solid 18-10-2 record that has them just two points out of first place in the all-Canadian division prior to Friday night's slate of games. And now there is some action happening behind the scenes as it pertains to the off-ice business, the product of what sources say have been recent, ongoing discussions between team officials and local government and health officials.
An email the organization sent out to season-ticket holders earlier this week, combined with new public orders being considered in Manitoba, has offered more than just a glimmer of hope that fans could be welcomed back to the downtown rink in the near future.
"As the province moves ahead with its vaccination plan, and as COVID numbers continue to stabilize, we remain hopeful that partial attendance will be allowed to occur for this 2021 season," the missive to the masses reads, in part.
My initial thought was this was just wishful, borderline delusional, thinking by True North. No chance, right? But then came Thursday's news conference with Dr. Brent Roussin and Premier Brian Pallister in which we learned code red could become code orange around here as early as next week. A game-changer, if you will.
Among the relaxed restrictions being weighed: Reopening theatres, concert halls and casinos up to 25 per cent capacity, to a maximum of 250 people; expanded capacity limits for indoor retail (50 per cent to a maximum of 500); expanded religious services (25 per cent to a maximum of 250); allowing the return of organized indoor amateur sporting events; dropping the mandatory two-week quarantine for interprovincial/domestic business travel; and outdoor gatherings moving from 10 to 25 people.
All of this is contingent on continuing to flatten the curve, and keeping the numbers from spiking yet again, especially as it relates to the more transmissible variants that have started to surface. Message to Manitobans: You're being given some rope here. Don't screw this up.
Far be it from me to dish out public health advice. I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on television, so I'll stay in my lane and leave that to the experts. But considering what's now on the table, the idea of the Jets soon getting the green light suddenly isn't so far-fetched.
Put it this way: Having seen first-hand how seriously True North is taking protocols at the rink for the limited number of us media-types who've been getting into the building since January for games and practices, I have plenty of faith in their ability to control the environment, especially with so much at stake. Much more so, in fact, than your local big box retailer or restaurant.
"Throughout the pandemic, we have worked closely with health authorities to discuss plans to welcome you back into Bell MTS Place when it is safe to do so. In the meantime, we continue to prepare, refining protocols and other safety measures," the email to ticket holders continued. It also noted the organization is "preparing and planning for a full 82-game regular schedule, with full or near capacity, for the 2021-22 season."
There are 17 U.S. teams that are currently allowing reduced capacity crowds, and there's been no suggestion any outbreaks have been linked to such events. There is detailed contact tracing going on in these markets, but the strict measures in place appear to be working. Staggered entrance times to prevent congestion, sitting only with your personal contacts, concessions delivered to your seats and, of course, wearing masks at all times.
The Jets have 26 regular-season games remaining, including six more on a lengthy road trip that began Thursday night in Edmonton with a tough 2-1 loss. They'll face the Oilers again on Saturday night, then move on to Vancouver for a pair next week, followed by three straight in Calgary.
After that it's back to Winnipeg where they'll play 12 of their final 20 games at home, starting March 31 and concluding May 8. That doesn't give a whole lot of runway for the team, at least not in the regular season, but I believe the playoffs is the ultimate goal here.
No, there won't be sold-out Whiteouts or downtown street parties happening during the post-season, which will run through early July, but if Walmart can pack 500 people into a store at a time, if your local church can hold a service for 250, if the ballet and opera and McPhillips Street Station can welcome 250 folks, then why can't the Jets start replacing some of those tarped-off seats and canned crowd noise with actual human beings?
Looking even further down the sporting road, this should bode well for the Winnipeg Goldeyes, Valour FC and Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who have the added advantage of playing in the great outdoors, where potential spread of the virus is further reduced.
Of course, the eventual next question will become: If you open it, will they come? There's no question many have been hit hard, both personally and professionally, by the pandemic. Supporting a pro sports team isn't cheap, nor will it be a priority for some folks who have much bigger issues to worry about right now.
But I do believe absence usually makes the heart grow fonder, as one long-time Jets supporter and season-ticket holder described to me this week.
"Before this pandemic, I was starting to feel a bit less enthusiasm about live sports. Maybe this break was enough to get us all hot and bothered again? Maybe something good will come from it? Maybe a lot of people will want to go again?" said Scott Lougheed. "Slowly, reservedly at first, but if this all passes us by without constantly evolving or the effects devolve into less deadly forms, then maybe live sports will become a demand attraction again?"
As hard as it might be to believe, we may soon be able to start finding out.
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.