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.
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.
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.
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.