Has there ever been a more bizarre situation in hockey than the conflicted identity of the Winnipeg Jets? The collision of historical perspectives is still sorting itself out as Manitobans understandable nostalgia for another era clashes head-on with the actual facts of the current situation. The two valid perspectives are on display just two weeks into the new Jets inaugural season.
The first real test came when Evander Kane was scrutinized for wanting to wear the #9 that was retired by the Jets1.0 in 1989 for Hall of Famer Bobby Hull. How one feels about this is a litmus test of which side of this story you embrace. Kane went through the motions and asked for Hull’s “blessing” and, [because this isn’t Hull's old Jets franchise, officially], he is now in #9, just as he was for his first two successful years in the NHL in Atlanta.
The third game of their season saw Winnipeg playing in Phoenix. Awkward? The Coyotes are of course the true former Jets franchise, and their captain, Shane Doan, is one of the few former Jets still playing. All this time Doan thought he was a part of that storied franchise -- now these guys are asked to carry on that tradition when opposing him? Please let me know: where does the banner for Bobby Hull’s retired number 9 hang now? Jets lose 5-1.
In Toronto, where hockey cynics run supreme, the Jets drew the highest number of media ever, most of them fascinated by the nostalgic memories drawn from a couple decades ago. But weren’t these the same players who came to the ACC twice a year as the Thrashers, with presumably far less attention? What’s going through the [mostly Canadian] players’ minds in this scenario when where they play is valued so much more than who they are and their competitiveness as hockey players?
That night, the Jets gave up a 3-1 lead to lose to the Maple Leafs in a shootout, then immediately made their way up to Ottawa. The cellar-dwelling Senators handed Winnipeg another loss last night, by a score of 4-1, dropping the Jets to the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 1-4-1 record. They've now surrendered twice as many goals as they’ve scored. In their first six games, they’ve found the net only 11 times.
In every major statistical category, Winnipeg is among the bottom five in the league including: Goals/Game, Goals against/Game, 5-on-5 Goals/Game, both PP% and PK% and Face-off percentage. Even in Atlanta, these guys weren’t this bad.
The Jets2.0 are playing this season in the Southeast Division, as their move from Atlanta came too late to reconfigure the NHL’s conference alignment. This brings us to the first ever broadcast of a Southeast Division matchup on Hockey Night in Canada, when the Carolina Hurricanes are in town Saturday night. Carolina's players know this team well having faced them six times (sometimes eight times) a year for a decade. Carolina fans are not willing to pretend this isn’t just the Thrashers relocated and roll their eyes at anyone claiming otherwise. They’ve heard enough Whalers-related commentary since 1997 to know the ins-and-outs of that conversation thoroughly.
Canadians' emotions for hockey are powerful. The potential to exploit those feelings for profit was too good an opportunity to pass up when the new ownership considered many options in naming the new team – which they insisted initially would not be called the Jets. But True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd. yielded to overwhelming public sentiment and have run with it ever since. Before the hockey games had ever started, suspension of disbelief was easy and most hockey fans reveled in the notion of the Jets reincarnated.
A hockey team’s identity is forged on the ice and in the dressing room, and for now, Andrew Ladd’s crew appear to be a bit lost. They aren’t allowed the amnesia many Canadians enjoy in ignoring the reality of this team’s history: the saga of Ilya Kovalchuk, and Dany Heatley before that; the frustrations that came from an ownership devoid of any understanding of the sport; the repeated coaching and management changes; the import of so many of the Blackhawks following Chicago’s Stanley Cup win in 2010. This is a team that’s been lost and re-invented many times before, to no avail. In all these iterations, they never regarded Teemu Selanne as part of their DNA.
It’s my feeling that asking the former Thrashers, after all they’ve endured, to become the Jets was hardly doing the players any favors. This is unknown territory at so many levels. It’s understandable if it takes them a long time to determine who they are now and the traditions from which they can draw.
The Jets players, with 2011 draft pick Mark Scheifele as an exception, did not start the season with a clean slate. The quicker the divergent perspectives can find common ground and settle down into a feeling of normalcy not novelty, the sooner this team will be able to believe in themselves and play with confidence for 60 minutes 82 nights a year. Identity doesn’t come from the packaging, but from experience and commitment to the make-up of the team; and, nurtured properly, it will undoubtedly grow in time.
There is one tradition in Winnipeg that the long-suffering hockey fans can rely on though: good things will come (eventually) to those who wait. Indeed.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.