A wave of national pride washed over Canada in 2011 when against what seemed impossibly long odds the National Hockey League announced it was returning to Winnipeg, a hard luck Prairie city it had turned its back on 15 years earlier.
Today another powerful wave is building at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and threatening to wash over the hockey-mad nation as the Winnipeg Jets, their fans and team owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson dream of ending the country’s 25-year Stanley Cup nightmare.
Not since the Montreal Canadiens lifted the last of their 24 titles in 1993 has Lord Stanley’s silver mug been paraded through the streets of a Canadian city.
The Jets, in the Western Conference finals against the Vegas Golden Knights, are Canada’s last hope of ending that drought this season. For Winnipeggers who have been put through the emotional grinder watching their team come and go and then come home again, this season has been one of unbridled joy.
When the Jets win, Winnipeggers stand a little taller.
“I don’t know if I have ever gone that far (thinking about a parade) but I would be lying if I said I had not thought about winning a Stanley Cup,” Chipman told Reuters, leaning back in his chair as he glanced out onto the ice of the practice facility.
“I’ve been thinking about that since I was a little boy.”
“I do occasionally allow myself to visualise certain aspects of what that would look like but I don’t allow myself to get too far down that road. But when I do have that picture in my mind, it is the celebration of the community. Where would that be? What would that look like? What would it feel like? (I) try to imagine the elation. I kind of think about that every now and again.”
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Chipman’s childhood dream has grown into a lifelong call to duty. Born and raised in ‘The Peg’, Chipman has invested much of his adult life to the Jets.
The local businessman joined forces with Thomson, Canada’s wealthiest person, to form True North Sports and Entertainment with the goal of securing an NHL franchise and reviving a community. When the Jets were preparing to relocate to Phoenix in 1996, Chipman threw all his energy into trying to save the team. When they left for Phoenix, he almost immediately began plotting to get them back.
For many it seemed a fool’s endeavour. The NHL, it was thought, had grander plans and bigger markets to cultivate — Las Vegas, Houston, Kansas City and Seattle were all lined up at their door.
Chipman pushed on, never losing sight of the prize. He brought minor league hockey to Winnipeg and Thomson had some land in the downtown core he wanted to develop.
With the construction of a new arena, True North built a model minor league franchise and patiently worked the NHL back channels.
After a couple of false starts, the city was welcomed back in the NHL lodge in 2011 when True North acquired and relocated the Atlanta Thrashers.
“We were in that effort for community reasons because the team meant so much to the community that it made sense to try and keep hockey going so we did that,” said Chipman.
“There is no way our family could have shouldered it by ourselves. David was an equal partner and gave us the means to do it. You bring in the pedigree of the Thomson family and their passion for Canada and David’s passion for this market. I think that’s why (we succeeded).”
While Chipman has become the face of the franchise, the extremely private Thomson, whose media and publishing empire includes Thomson Reuters News Agency, avoids the spotlight. Ranked number 32 on the most recent Forbes list of wealthiest people at $25 billion, Thomson is better known for his love of the arts than a passion for hockey.
He is only occasionally spotted at Jets games but according to Chipman, he follows the team religiously. When a player is injured, Chipman says Thomson is the first to call or text.
In a rare interview shortly after acquiring the team, Thomson explained to Stephen Brunt of the Globe and Mail (also part of the Thomson portfolio) how, like most Canadians, his love for hockey was inherited from his father.
Thomson revealed in another interview with the Winnipeg Free Press that he has a collection of Jets t-shirts that he takes and wears just about everywhere he goes.
“Hockey, that’s all we talk about,” enthused Chipman. “We talk regularly. He loves the game, like every Canadian he has a real passion for the game and for the beauty of the game.
“This is not a trophy asset for David, it really isn’t. What he really did was invest in our community.”
Through word and action, Chipman and Thomson have expressed how deeply they care about what the Jets mean to Winnipeg and now the country.
Despite playing in the NHL’s smallest market and in the league’s smallest arena, the Jets’ gate revenues, still the financial lifeblood of an NHL team, fall in the middle of the league. They pay salaries in U.S. dollars while most revenue streams are in Canadian currency. But with the help of NHL licensing and television revenue, they are able to survive.
Their fans remain their biggest asset.
“As a friend of mine once said, we are a collective act of will,” Chipman said. “We’ve had to sort of will our way along here and with that comes pride. There are not a lot of soft hands in this town, this place is real. Look, if we don’t win it this year we will get up and try again next year. It’s just what we do. That’s what this place does.”
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)