Who will teach these young Winnipeg Jets how to win?

There is expectation and there is hope. It is only when expectation trumps hope that culture shifts.

And so it is with the Winnipeg Jets.

Grand Master Kevin Cheveldayoff

Last spring’s fleeting fling with playoff hockey notwithstanding, the culture of losing is the albatross that followed the Atlanta caravan as it rolled into River City in 2011, whereupon the Thrashers morphed into the Jets. She’s still there, hanging from the neck of this woebegone National Hockey League franchise.

How do you get rid of her?

Well, you change parts, of course, but you must change the right parts. In a little more than a year, the tallest foreheads in Jets Nation have permitted one Stanley Cup champion, Michael Frolik, to skate away sans compensation, then they dispatched a two-time Stanley Cup champion, captain Andrew Ladd, to a division foe in barter for a fistful of hope.

Meanwhile, the tandem of co-bankroll Mark Chipman and his valet, Grand Master Kevin Cheveldayoff, have added a few parts from another losing culture, the Buffalo Sabres, they welcomed prodigal son Alexander Burmistrov back from his two-year hissy fit in Mother Russia, and they keep regrettable Thrasher holdovers Chris Thorburn, Mark Stuart and Ondrej Pavelec on payroll.

Dismissing proven winners and clinging to proven losers is not a recipe for success or a seismic cultural shift.

What about all the youth Chipman and Cheveldayoff have brought on board, you ask? Well, yes, the Jets now ice a lineup that is greener than St. Patty’s Day. But youth equals hope, not expectation. And these neophytes are being integrated into a culture of losing, on both the big club and the farm in the American Hockey League.

Mark Chipman
Mark Chipman

Who is going to teach Mark Sheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Jacob Trouba what is required to win at the NHL loft? Dustin Byfuglien has a Stanley Cup ring, but after that…nada.

As much as I greatly admire the play of Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler (they can play on my team any time), their body of work in the NHL does not include a great deal of team success. Certainly they can show the whippersnappers how to prepare and what it takes to be a professional, but winning is another matter. For the most part, all they’ve done in the NHL is lose, as has the head coach, Paul Maurice, and chronic losing can consume an entire organization and become as much a part of its brand as the team logo.

How, for example, are the Chicago Cubs viewed if not as losers? Lovable losers, to be sure, but losers just the same. That happens when a team goes more than a century without winning Major League Baseball’s World Series. The Toronto Maple Leafs have a rich, winning tradition that includes numerous Stanley Cup conquests, yet when we see the logo of the NHL’s most-ballyhooed franchise we think laughable loser due to the Leafs’ failure to win hockey’s top bauble since spring 1967.

Once upon a time, of course, there existed a healthy culture of winning in the Winnipeg Jets boudoir and front office. You didn’t join the Jets during the World Hockey Association years just to play hockey. You were expected to win. There was no option. And win they did. In the final four WHA seasons, the Jets participated in 10 playoff series. They won nine of them, including three championship frolics. Their post-season record during that stretch was 39-11. Overall, they appeared in five finals in the WHA’s seven-year run.

paul maurice2
Paul Maurice

That culture of winning gave way to a culture of losing, initially because the championship roster was ransacked by the NHL when it absorbed the four WHA survivors—the Jets, Edmonton Oilers, New England Whalers and Quebec Nordiques. In 17 seasons, the original Jets NHL franchise won just two playoff rounds and, now housed in the Arizona desert, it remains the only WHA outfit that has failed to secure the Stanley Cup.

Which brings us back to Jets 2.0 and the culture of losing that began in Atlanta and continues in River City, where the local hockey heroes have failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament for the fourth time in five crusades.

Apparently, Chipman and Cheveldayoff plan to change the culture by going all-in on a youth movement. Fine. Except one need look no further than Edmonton to discover what a massive infusion of greenhorns might deliver. The Oilers have an array of glittery, young talent, most notably up front, but all Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins et al have learned is how to lose. Even with Connor McDavid inserted into the lineup, the Oilers stand 30th in a 30-team league. They don’t know how to win and there’s nobody who can show them how to win.

That’s not to say the kiddie-corps route cannot work for the Jets. But, again, when you change parts you must change the right parts. Who’s going to teach them how to win?

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.

2 thoughts on “Who will teach these young Winnipeg Jets how to win?”

  1. Well said Ms. Swansson! You have given many nails a headache with your insightful analysis. If I may, I would like to add a few points in support of yours.

    The principal characteristic I have observed in Champions is not that they are more fond of winning than their opponents but rather that they will absolutely not tolerate losing. For a Champion, a loss is an existential crisis that demands a win in response in order to re establish the alpha identity. A Champion believes they are the alpha and no other outcome is acceptable.

    Certain hockey teams win a disproportionate number of cups because their entire organization is designed to create Champions. True North should use Chicago or Detroit as the template for winning organizations.

    If the Jets are ever to be a Championship team they really need to make some changes. The lunch bucket , blue collar, gritty Rocky Balboa thing only works in movies and has to go. It does not fit the fine young group of dazzling talents that they are drafting. A teams style will shift over the years as character players come and go but a core identity is an organizational characteristic and the best core identity a team can have is “We are a team that expect to be Champions!”. True North needs to adopt a Championship attitude and culture all the way from the ownership down. Winning organizations expect to win Championships and are not afraid to say so. This is their core identity.

    Unfortunately, the present Jets ownership project a loser mentality on many levels of “messaging”. They have subtly said as much in stating that their goal for the Jets is to be, merely, a “play off team”. The underlying message to the players is “We are playing to participate, not to win”. This is not the message you want to send to your young players if you want to build championship spirit. True North has to state, loud and clear, that the goal is to win Stanley Cups.

    The Jets need to drop their hyphenated name. The Winnipeg “Budget Team” Jets is not first and foremost how they should be presented. Are the Jets a small market club? Certainly they are but that does not mean that they have to cripple the teams identity and self esteem by playing beggar at the NHL banquet. Calling yourself a budget team is a pre made excuse for failure and it will rub off on the players. The WHA Jets never called themselves a budget team and Winnipeg was a smaller city then. Rather, they projected the team as World Class and the team performed that way. The Green Bay Packers are another example of a small market Goliath slayer. The argument here is not whether the Jets are in fact a budget team but whether or not it is healthy to make “budget team” your core identity. True North and the Winnipeg media have to stop calling the Jets a budget team or they will never get anything more than budget results. The budget team thing may have fit the gritty lunch bucket theme but it will be a rotting Albatross around their necks if they don’t shake it, and soon.

    The Jets management have explicitly rewarded poor performance and behaviour and punishes good performance and behaviour. Stuart, Pavelec and Burmistrov are, at best, barely NHL calibre players by any metric. On top of that, Pavelec hid an impaired driving charge, Stuart seems un coachable and Burmistrov jumped ship for the KHL in a hissy fit and yet these three are rewarded with disproportionately rich contracts and fierce management loyalty. Meanwhile, Ladd, Stempniak and Frolic are sent packing despite being “leave it all on the ice” kind of players with proven NHL talent and professional attitudes. What message does this send to your team? Is it any wonder that Ladd and Frolic came in with high “asks” at contract time? Why wouldn’t Trouba think he is worth 6 million a year if Stuart is getting 3.3 million for being managements most beloved and sacred 3 point a year pylon. Jets management needs to make a strong statement to the players that the team is committed to winning by getting rid of Stuart, Pavelec and Burmistrov to start and re establishing a culture of fair reward for positive performance. The standard needs to apply to coaching and management staff as well.

    The owners of perennially winning teams hire competent, talented GMs and management and then get out of their way and let them do their jobs. Mr. Chipman should seriously assess the micro managerial role he is purported to play within the club and take measures to back off in order to make a clear statement that Chevy is in charge. The GM has to have credibility and authority in the minds of players, staff and fans but as of now Chevy projects neither.

    I think the Jets are a lot closer to a Stanley Cup than most people think but it will only happen if the the organization devotes itself to making the hard nosed changes needed to create a “Championship Culture” within the club and that has to be initiated from the top.

    Mission statement, strategic plan, high standards and hard work = Stanley Cups


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