Despite the return of an NHL franchise to Winnipeg after 15 years, it appears some folks remain unwilling to let go of their bitterness toward NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for his role in the sale and relocation of their former NHL team to Phoenix back in 1996.
Winnipeg Sun columnist Kevin Engstrom was miffed “a handful of Winnipeggers” now consider Bettman not such a bad guy after all.
With the headline of a recent article proclaiming “Bettman is still a jerk”, Engstrom still blames the commissioner for ushering “our beloved Jets out of town 15 years ago”, considering it “utter nonsense” that a few Winnipeg denizens consider Bettman a hero for bringing the NHL back to their fair city.
I agree with Engstrom the return of the NHL to the 'Peg required no heroics on Bettman's part. He's also spot on when he writes Winnipeg was used “initially as a pawn” by the league to “threaten the fiscally irresponsible people running the City of Glendale”, referring of course to the ongoing saga of the Phoenix Coyotes quest for new ownership willing to keep them in Glendale.
Engstrom is also correct in claiming the Atlanta Thrashers weren't sold to True North Sports & Entertainment and moved to Winnipeg because Bettman has a great love for the Manitoba capital, but instead because there's nowhere else to put the franchise.
But Engstrom is wrong to make Bettman the scapegoat for the relocation of the Jets to Phoenix fifteen years ago.
Now, before I go further, understand that I'm certainly no apologist for Mr. Bettman. Those who've followed my work over the past ten years know I've been amongst his strongest critics, particularly during the lockout of 2004-05.
That said, I've grown weary of fans, especially my fellow Canadians, heaping blame on the Commissioner for things which simply weren't his fault, like the relocation of the Jets to Phoenix.
Granted, Bettman didn't exactly handle that situation well with his public statements on the matter back then, which undoubtedly fuelled the myth he's “anti-Canadian”.
But Bettman wasn't the reason the Jets left Winnipeg. The ownership at the time, led by team president Barry Shenkarow, claimed it couldn't afford to keep the club in Winnipeg without a new, larger arena, which the city and provincial governments of the day were unwilling to construct.
With no serious buyers willing to invest in keeping the club in Winnipeg, the league had no choice but approve the sale of the club to two businessmen who moved the franchise to Phoenix.
The league wasn't going to take over the team and run it for years based on vague hopes the municipal and provincial governments might one day change its opinion about building an arena, nor could they sit there forever waiting for new ownership.
Yes, I know, the league has done that with the Coyotes for the past two years, but only because the city of Glendale doesn't want to lose the team and be stuck with a big, shiny arena lacking an anchor tenant.
Indeed, it could've been the Coyotes, not the Thrashers, moved to Winnipeg if the Glendale city council hadn't agreed to fund the team's potential losses for next season, allowing the search for a new owner to continue.
The reason the Thrashers are now in Winnipeg is because their owners wanted to be rid of them, and Atlanta's city council didn't feel they were worth fighting for.
In 1996, Winnipeg didn't have a modern arena, or potential owners who could afford to keep the Jets in town. Bettman and the NHL Board of Governors had no choice but to sign off on the sale and relocation.
Engstrom also called the league's rapid expansion in the 1990s into the U.S Sun Belt “Bettman's idea”, but the reality is that plan - spurred in part by then-LA Kings owner Bruce McNall, who was riding the success Wayne Gretzky had brought to his franchise in 1988 - was firmly entrenched by the time he took over as commissioner in February 1993.
The San Jose Sharks came into existence in 1991, the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 (the same year as the agreement to expand to Anaheim and Miami), while the plans to move the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas was in the works by early 1993.
Atlanta, Nashville, and the relocation of the Hartford Whalers to Carolina (in circumstances somewhat similar to those of the Jets) occurred on Bettman's watch, but so did expansion to Columbus and a new franchise for Minnesota, plus relocation of the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado, three climes hardly considered “Sun Belt”.
I agree the league expanded too much, too fast, too soon in the 1990s, but most of that already happened before Bettman was handed the keys to his office.
Furthermore, it was Bettman who, just over ten years ago, convinced the American team owners to agree to a revenue-sharing plans to assist Canadian clubs struggling with losses attributable to the extremely low value at the time of the Canadian dollar.
He was also responsible for saving the bankrupt Ottawa Senators from relocation in 2004, bringing in billionaire Eugene Melnyk to purchase the club.
Engstrom is also wrong to suggest Bettman “still couldn't help but show some contempt for Winnipeg” by “all but threatening” to kill the sale of the Thrashers if the 13,000 season tickets weren't sold as soon as possible, or that the league is holding Winnipeg to a higher standard than other NHL cities.
Bettman was simply engaging, for once, in straight talk. If the Winnipeg franchise doesn't sell out every game, it's not going to work. That's not a threat. It's simply the truth.
Winnipeg hockey fans don't like to be reminded they've got the smallest arena in the smallest market in the league. They believe their passionate enthusiasm for NHL hockey will more than overcome the potential financial problems which could arise over the next five to fifteen years from having a small arena in a small market.
Hopefully, it'll work out this time for Winnipeg, but only if the fans there are willing to pay the expensive prices – which will continue to rise in the coming years - to fill the building for every game, be it preseason, regular season and playoffs, through good times and bad, no matter what.
That's the reality for the smallest market in the NHL.
It's understandable why there would be lingering bitterness on the part of some, or perhaps many, Winnipeg hockey fans toward Bettman. Losing the Jets was painful, an open wound on their collective psyche that wasn't allowed to fully heal.
But now they've got an NHL franchise back in their city. Another chance to prove an NHL franchise can thrive in Winnipeg should dispel the bitterness over the Jets.
That's not to suggest Bettman shouldn't be immune to criticism. When he says or does something wrong, he should be called out.
But the expansion into the Sun Belt wasn't his grand scheme, he's not “anti-Canadian”, and he's not responsible for the Jets leaving Winnipeg.
For those in Winnipeg with lingering bitterness toward Bettman, it's time to get over it and turn the page.