Desperate times. Meet desperate measures.
How else to explain True North looking west and briefly pondering the possibility of relocating Winnipeg Jets home games for the foreseeable future?
The idea was first broached Thursday with season ticket holders, given the fact public-health orders in Manitoba currently restrict capacity at Canada Life Centre to just 250 fans. It was pulled off the table less than 24 hours later, the result of plenty of negative feedback from the folks who pay the freight.
Ultimately that’s the right call.
Although playing in front of crowds in a city like Saskatoon would have certainly provided a temporary boost to the bank account — if the games are ultimately going to be played one way or another, any revenues are better than none, right? — it would have been a bad business decision for a myriad of reasons.
Short-term personal gain. Likely long-term public pain.
Let’s start with the most important issue of health and safety. COVID and the rapidly spreading Omicron variant don’t magically disappear as soon as you hit the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border.
Just because it might currently be allowed by our neighbours — despite drastically different rules pretty much everywhere else in Canada — doesn’t make it the right thing to do. (From the department of "how’s this for timing," Saskatoon just moved to critical status in its colour-coded framework on Friday, the result of surging infections).
Read the room, folks, along with all the science and medical opinions out there as our numbers explode, hospital beds fill rapidly and front-line workers are once again taxed to the max. Being the reason 15,000 people gather under one roof right now for potential superspreader events is nothing to celebrate.
The optics would be terrible.
"Completely disrespectful and shows no leadership or understanding for the safety of people," is how one long-time Jets season ticket holder put it to me.
"If they move games to avoid restrictions, I won’t be renewing my season tickets next time around.” – A Winnipeg Jets die–hard supporter.
"I think this whole situation sucks and I hate COVID with the power of a thousand suns but this just reeks of elitism. If they move games to avoid restrictions, I won’t be renewing my season tickets next time around," said another die-hard supporter.
Although I suspect the majority of people understand True North is a private business with a mandate to make money — and many won’t begrudge them for thinking outside the box here — there’s something to be said for subtlety and staying the course, especially in the middle of a deadly global pandemic where so many are suffering.
There’s also the concern of a disconnect with your own loyal audience, the same group that packed the downtown rink for a decade and still chants the ownership group’s name during O Canada.
Aren’t we supposed to be in this together, even if the evidence is piling up society is anything but? And shouldn’t True North, given their prominence and platform, be leading by example? Getting out of Dodge to take advantage of what is essentially a loophole would be a tone-deaf attempt to put profits over people.
And that message, it appears, was received loud and clear based on the survey.
According to True North, only 30 per cent of respondents supported the idea of moving some home games "if it helped the hockey club." Forty per cent had "negative sentiment", while the other 30 per cent were neutral.
"First and foremost, the strongest theme was that Winnipeg Jets fans are concerned for the health and safety of our community, in Manitoba and beyond," the organization said in Friday’s update to fans.
"Additional themes included sentiments of pandemic fatigue, a strong desire for fans to watch games in Canada Life Centre, and support for True North to continue to abide by public health orders."
Translation: We see what you guys are trying to do here. Don’t even think about it. And so they won’t.
Look, I feel sympathy True North, which still has to pay more than US$80 million in salaries regardless of circumstances for a team they built to be a contender. There’s no guarantee fans will return en masse even when they have the green light to do so.
The Jets haven’t sold out any of their 17 home games so far this year, and a few other survey responses from this week suggest the prognosis isn’t great for the remaining 24. Only 50 per cent of fans said they would attend a game today if allowed, while 28 per cent said they were hesitant and 22 per cent undecided.
Only 50 per cent of fans said they would attend a game today if allowed, while 28 per cent said they were hesitant and 22 per cent undecided.
"These numbers improve marginally if attendance capacity for home games was reduced to 50 per cent," the organization said. Although a specific date wasn’t released, True North added that "there were mixed responses to the suggestions of using medical-grade masks, not having food and beverage service and disallowing children who were not vaccinated (as they currently do for adults)."
In other words, they have their work cut out for them.
I feel sorry for any business, big or (especially) small that is hemorrhaging right now. We are almost two years into this bloody pandemic, and frustration is at an all-time high.
But let’s also remember that A) Professional hockey, as much as we might love it, is not an essential service. B) The team is co-owned by the richest man in Canada, David Thomson, who has a net worth north of $45 billion. In that sense, they’re much better equipped to weather this storm than the majority of others.
There’s those darn optics again.
Six Jets games have already been impacted. Two home dates in late December were already postponed. Four more over the next 10 days have also been scrubbed. The initial hope was to bump them to next month, when perhaps the situation might be more under control and protocols are relaxed enough to once again open the doors.
But the fact the Jets explored a temporary move suggests they’re not optimistic of things changing anytime soon. Manitoba’s current public health orders were set to expire Jan. 11, but were extended Friday to at least the beginning of February.
In addition to those six home games, Winnipeg also has three road dates to make up. Across the league, there are now close to 100 games which will fill the window that was going to be used for NHL involvement in the Olympics. We’re likely now at the point no further games can be delayed if the the league wants to finish its regular-season by the end of April and get back on a regular cycle.
The competitive integrity of this hockey season is already shot, with huge gaps in the schedule and teams being forced to play severely shorthanded at times with multiple players in COVID protocols.
The competitive integrity of this hockey season is already shot, with huge gaps in the schedule and teams being forced to play severely shorthanded at times with multiple players in COVID protocols. There’s also the fact it’s different rules for clubs, depending on which side of the border they’re on. The seven Canadian teams are being hit harder than anyone.
Consider the Jets last played at home on Dec. 19. Barring any further chances, the next scheduled game at Canada Life Centre is Jan. 25. In between, they’ll play eight straight road games, spread over three different trips and five weeks.
Yeah, go ahead and slap an asterisk on the 2021-22 campaign. The same way we did for 2021’s abbreviated 56-game slate. And 2019-20’s bubble championship.
None of this is ideal. But running away and trying to hide from the problems don’t make them go away.
Fortunately, True North realized this before proceeding any further down the road with what would have been a major mistake.
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.