During my recent back and forth with ForgetTeemu in the comment section on the last article, one of his remarks about True North & Kevin Cheveldayoff being stuck in a “win-now” mindset created a spark in my mind. The result of that made me look into what factors played a role in the Winnipeg Jets’ decisions the past couple of off-seasons and the following article is what I came up with.

Going into last off-season, I was pretty vocal about my belief that a rebuild was the only way for the Winnipeg Jets to eventually become a Stanley Cup contender. After a promising season was up-ended by the team’s lackluster play, it ended with a swift playoff exit and I felt it was time to move on from upcoming UFAs Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck.

The Winnipeg Jets ownership and management did not go that route, instead signing their two star players to long-term extensions. At the time of the signings, the franchise indicated that based on a poll of season tickets holders the fanbase was in no mood for a retool or rebuild. Cheveldayoff’s decision to ink the two players was quickly rewarded as the team played pretty fantastic in the regular season, finishing with the 4th best record in the National Hockey League. Unfortunately, the post-season provided the familiar 1st round exit to leave a sour taste in the mouth over the summer.

It is way too early to determine which path would have been best, but I can look at one of the factors that likely impacted the direction True North ended up going.

The charts below tell us the approximate populations each NHL city has available to fill their arenas with people and our little Manitoban city finds itself firmly in last place (the nearest city in population is Buffalo, which had 479,447 more people than Winnipeg in 2018). For the American cities, the graph includes populations for the combined area (CSA) and the metropolitan region (MSA), while the Canadian list includes where each city would rank if they magically joined the United States.

So, why am I going on about the amount of people in each NHL city? Well, it’s all leading up to a discussion about attendance numbers. Starting off with a look at the lowest 12 franchises in terms of average attendance per game in the 2023-24 season.

You will have had to scan down quite a while before you found the True North franchise sitting in 31st place, only ahead of the now-defunct Arizona Coyotes. With the Winnipeg Jets playing in the very tiny Canada Life Centre, even at their best historical average they could only surpass Anaheim & San Jose’s numbers from the previous season. That’s just part of life with the smallest venue in the league.

Finishing that low is a problem in itself, but it gets worse when you take a closer look at the NHL teams that make up the bottom 12 in attendance. Successful seasons were rare (25%), with only 4 of these squads making the post-season, including the 8th ranked Boston Bruins, the 11th place Nashville Predators, the 18th place Washington Capitals, and the tied for 4th place Winnipeg Jets. Of the playoff teams on the chart, our squad is by far the lowest, with almost 4,000 less ticket sales per game than the “just snuck into the playoffs” Preds.

The rest are filled with teams firmly in the midst of rebuilds (Sharks & Ducks) or struggling to find a way out of one (Senators, Sabres, Devils, & Jackets), so it is understandable that their arenas aren’t filled to capacity. And of these non-playoff teams, they were mostly still drawing in at least 2,000 more fans per game than our Jets. Other than the down-right awful San Jose Sharks of course, who could be at the absolute lowest reaches of their tear-down/rebuild plan, but even then managed to get slightly more people through their gates than a top 5 NHL team (Jets).

Interestingly, 3 of the top 5 franchises in attendance last season were not that close to being playoff teams (Montreal Canadiens – 21,099, Detroit Red Wings – 18,980, & Chicago Blackhawks – 18,836), while Canada had three cities in the top 10 (1st place Montreal, Edmonton in 2nd with 19,173, & Toronto in 8th with 18,789).

Before I jump to any conclusions, lets take a look at how Jets’ fans have supported our franchise since it moved from Atlanta.

Unsurprisingly, there was an outpouring of support early on, with the seats of the CLC being filled to capacity in the first 9 seasons. Winnipeg’s highest average came in 2019-20 when the team finished with the 15th best record, while the next highest was in 2016-17 when the Jets ended up 20th in the NHL. It is a bit odd that both of those were non-playoff seasons (*qualified for play in round in 19-20).

Since then however, things haven’t been as rosy with True North dealing with the sight of numerous empty seats the past three campaigns. Those years ended with Winnipeg finishing 19th (21-22), 14th (22-23), and tied for 4th (23-24), so a couple average teams and one really good squad.

If you are wondering how Winnipeg’s next closest rival in terms of size has done in terms of attendance. Well, here is how the citizens of Buffalo have supported their team during the past 11 seasons.

As you can see, the Sabres suffered from a post-pandemic drop in attendance similar to what the Winnipeg Jets saw. But even with that, Buffalo has consistently had more bodies in their seats and this is despite the fact that the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in any of the above seasons (Jets qualified 7 times in same span, if you include the play-in round loss). Fortunately, they do have the benefit of a much larger arena and can take advantage of that during any good times in the future.

I was going to continue with a graph about the Columbus Blue Jackets or another of the NHL’s lower ranked teams, but really they just continue to show the same. Basically they all will show that Winnipeg is drawing in less ticket sales consistently, even when compared to complete rebuild teams like the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks. Those squads had very little chance of winning any given matchup last season, but still managed to sell more tickets than a team with the 4th best win-loss record at home (Jets).

And that makes me wonder how well Winnipeg Jets’ fans would actually support the team during a rebuild?? Would the numbers drop if we were in the same situation as the Sharks? If so, by how much? These things matter because while the purchase of the Winnipeg Jets by True North has undoubtedly made them money overall with the rise in franchise prices, ownership still needs at least 14,500 seats filled per game to give them a chance to make money on a yearly basis and even that doesn’t guarantee the franchise will avoid a “red” net income.

So when the people who are actually buying season tickets tell True North that they will only continue to support a team trying to make the playoffs, both ownership and management are kind of limited in the directions they can take. I know that some people will say that the owners are wealthy enough and can afford to take a hit for a few seasons during a rebuild, but I’m not sure that is how rich people think (I’m certainly not one of them).

In the end, I have come to the conclusion that the fans are mainly to blame for the Winnipeg Jets being stuck in a win-now mode….and let me be clear that I am not pointing fingers at anyone. Because while I am an avid fan of the team and make sure that I am watching every game, I rarely spend the money to attend a game in person. So I am guilty as the rest of us. There just aren’t enough of us to ensure that the Canada Life Centre is filled to the brim each game (or at least close).

Maybe I am over-rating the importance of ticket sales to the survival of the franchise or assuming that Jets’ fans wouldn’t support a poor performing team…but I don’t think so. I have been wrong in the past, so I won’t rule it out.

It will be interesting to see how things play out for the Calgary Flames in the next few years, since they found themselves in a somewhat similar situation but took a completely different route. They ended up moving on from their top center (Lindholm) and goalie (Markstrom), but even then they didn’t go into a complete rebuild mode since the return in both trades provided players who could make an impact at the NHL level right away. In four years, will the Flames’ path pay off and have Winnipeg Jets’ fans wishing that our management did something different last summer?

Anyways, that is the end of the tangent I went on this afternoon and at it’s worse, it will at least give us a new article to continue the discussion that high-end prospect Rutger McGroarty’s camp is possibly looking to be moved to another team due to the lack of “organizational opportunities” or whatever new Winnipeg Jets information pops up. In reality, this McGroarty decision can be pushed to next off-season if management wants.  At the end of the NCAA year, they can go back and offer McG an entry level deal that he would be able to blow the first year of by playing the remainder of the season in the NHL or AHL (thus giving him a chance to earn a new contract quicker). Maybe seeing Lambert get a chance and Perfetti make strides under Arniel would change their outlook? If not, then they still have a year to deal with it, though it would be best to move him in the off-season. So unless the team is blown away, there is really no need to pull the trigger on a deal right now.

Enjoy the summer!!

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