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Can the Winnipeg Jets Win in a Loser Region?

Posted: 10/08/11 06:12 PM ET

Fifteen years ago, Winnipeggers gathered at a funeral. There were friends and dignitaries, tears and laughter, stories and musings. But the funeral lacked a casket and there was no body.

On May 6, 1996, Winnipeggers met to mourn the loss of the Jets. The professional hockey team was moving to Arizona. It was a major event. Winnipeg -- like many prairie cities -- has always been big on hockey.

That afternoon, people came to pay their respects in an arena without ice, for a hockey town without a hockey team. People spoke. They retired the number of a former star, lifting his jersey up into the rafters -- and, when the event ended, the lights went out and the jersey went to Phoenix.

In many ways, the team had been doomed. In the same division as the Edmonton Oilers, I remember watching the team lose quickly and decisively early in the playoffs through the 1980s -- the misfortune of being trapped in the same division as the best team of the day, possibly the best team ever to play.

Between 1983 and 1990, Winnipeg and Edmonton would play each other in the playoffs six times. The Oilers won every one of those meetings, holding the Jets to just four wins in the six best-of-seven series. Even in 1984, the year that the Jets would finish fourth best overall in the league during the regular season, Wayne Gretzky and his crew barely worked up a sweat.

In the last six seasons in Winnipeg, the Jets didn't make the playoffs three times. The issue was not that Winnipeg is too close to Edmonton (and thus being in the same division); it was the problem of being north of the 49th parallel.

The game had moved south. In the 1990s, so much seemed to. The United States enjoyed peace and prosperity -- a dot-com boom, coupled with a surging stock market.

The contrast between the U.S. and Canada was great.

The early 1990s had been the worst recession to hit Canada since the Depression; the United States hit an economic bump in the road. Our politicians fretted the brain drain and major cuts; their politicians enjoyed rising tax revenues and the resulting balanced budgets.

It was worse: the year the Jets left town, Canada seemed on the cusp of breaking up. Having narrowly lost the referendum, Lucien Bouchard became premier of Quebec in January, and another referendum -- a winning referendum for the separatists -- seemed inevitable. Everyone was on edge; Prime Minister Chretien assaulted a protester. It seemed that the Canadian experiment itself teetered on the edge.

The Jets weren't a winning team because Canada had stopped being competitive in the sport. The day of the "funeral," the dollar traded at just 72 cents. Add in higher taxes, and it easy to see why hockey stars played in cities like Dallas, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta, not Winnipeg, Quebec City, or Toronto -- the big bucks were found south of the 49th parallel. Since the end of the 1996 season, for the record, the Stanley Cup has been won 15 times, all by American teams.

Tomorrow, the game returns to Winnipeg. It's not the old Jets, of course -- they continue to play in Phoenix. But it is a professional team, one that used to play in Atlanta. Hockey returns to the hockey town.

It says much about the country and its newfound prosperity. The anemic Loonie now trades near parity. The real estate market didn't collapsed and the federal government's debt-to-GDP ratio is about a third of America's.

Of course, there are storm clouds on the horizon. If the world is on fire, how long can we stay prosperous? Or, to steal a line from a friend, how long can you stay a winner in a loser region?

Tomorrow, though, I'm going to watch hockey. I'm not alone.

These are good times to be a Jets fan. And, of course, a Canadian.