Winnipeg, about two hours north of the U.S. border in the province of Manitoba, isn’t often in the spotlight.
But the city and its 684,000 residents, who have been without an NHL team since the Jets left in 1996 for Phoenix, celebrated Tuesday as True North Sports & Entertainment announced it had bought the Atlanta Thrashers and will move the franchise to Winnipeg.
“I went for lunch earlier and there’s Jets jerseys everywhere you go,” Washington Capitals forward Eric Fehr said from Winnipeg, where he makes his summer home. “I think it’s great for the city of Winnipeg to get a team back.”
Many questions remain, including whether the new team will be called the Jets and what will happen with the Thrashers’ hockey operations staff. Another major question is what will happen in regard to realignment.
Multiple published reports have indicated that Winnipeg will continue to play in the Southeast Division with Washington, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Florida for one more season.
Winnipeg in the Southeast likely would make for a record-breaking travel schedule for those players. It would also have an impact on the Caps. A round-trip flight from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to Winnipeg is 2,500 miles a big increase from the 1,094 to Atlanta.
“It’s going to be a lot tougher for the players that are going to be here in Winnipeg,” said Fehr, whose hometown of Winkler, Manitoba, is about an hour and a half from Winnipeg. “We only have to deal with coming to Winnipeg three times. We can’t complain too much.”
In a radio interview on Winnipeg’s Team 590, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said “if it happens, it happens,” but boasted no knowledge of the league’s plans.
“Assuming they would be in our division for at least another year, I’m looking forward to seeing what the schedule looks like,” he said.
The sale and relocation of the Thrashers won’t become official until it’s approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors on June 21. While approval is expected, the team is attempting to sell 13,000 season tickets in time to make a statement to the league.
Fehr said he’d be “very surprised” if that benchmark of 13,000 isn’t reached, given the excitement around the city about getting a team back after 15 years of disappointment and waiting. Fans in Atlanta are stuck with those emotions this time, losing another NHL team 31 years after the Flames left for Calgary.
For those in Winnipeg, this is a day of joy Fehr said there were revelers in one area of the city and bands playing to complete the party atmosphere.
Whether they’ll get the Jets name back remains to be seen, however, with commissioner Gary Bettman noting that it will be made available to True North if the group wants it. Chairman Mark Chipman said no official decision has been made.
“Everyone in the city has a Jets jersey,” Fehr said. “Even if it’s not named the Jets, there will be more Jets jerseys than whatever the team is called on opening night.”