Looking back at the year that was the inaugural season of the Winnipeg Jets, I’m surprised to find that I’m not lamenting the late-season letdown that led us out of the playoff hunt all too soon. Instead, I’m enjoying the playoffs, thinking about the 2012 draft, and recalling some of the highlights of the 2011-12 season. So many of those highlights featured the humble presence of our owner Mark Chipman that I’m sure a Pavlovian smile comes to the face of every Winnipegger when they see him.
Now, I’ve never met Mark Chipman in person but would love to have the opportunity to sit down and toast both the Moose and the Jets with him, followed up by a Q&A custom-tailored as I saw fit. Knowing my chances of having that opportunity are roughly the same as my starting at halfback for the Bombers, the next best thing I can think of is considering how he might answer some of my questions.
So, to that end, here is a completely fictional interview between myself and the owner and Chairman of the Winnipeg Jets, Mark Chipman:
Mikey ‘The Deuce’ (MTD): So Mark, it’s been a year to remember. Do any moments stand out more than others?
Mark Chipman (MC): Gosh, there’s been so many wonderful memories that it would be hard to pick just one. Making the announcement that we had purchased the team, unveiling the team name, the jersey, the home opener. One moment that stands out was at 12:17 on June 4th when we confirmed that our Drive to 13,000 was successful. It was a validating moment and does stand out.
MTD: Were you concerned that the Drive to 13,000 wouldn’t be successful?
MC: Not ‘strongly concerned’ but whenever you undertake something of this magnitude you can’t help but have niggling doubts in the back of your mind. Risk management in business means having avenues ready if things don’t go according to plan, but in this case we didn’t have a ‘Plan B’ if we only sold 8,000 or 9,000 season tickets. Looking back I now know that we had nothing to worry about but at the time all the market research reports in the world couldn’t give me the peace of mind I got at 12:17 that day.
MTD: I’m glad you mentioned ‘looking back’. When you look back now over the last few years is there anything you would have done differently?
MC: Well, to answer your question fully, I’d have to talk about two different categories. Those things that I would have done differently and those things that I would have wanted to do differently but couldn’t for one reason or another.
MTD: One thing I’ve always wanted to discuss with you was the capacity of the MTS Centre. There are persistent rumours floating around Winnipeg saying that you originally wanted a 12,000 seat arena which would have suited the AHL Moose perfectly, but would have precluded any discussion of the NHL’s return and that only at the insistence of then-Mayor Glen Murray did you agree to an arena that had the capacity to host an NHL team. Any truth to that?
MC: No, at least not any substantive truth. We canvassed a number of ideas and proposals and some of them had that smaller capacity but we took them off the table pretty quickly. Like I told Macleans when they published their ‘Winnipeg Jets Return’ edition, as far back as 2000 we were cognisant that an opportunity to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg may present itself and we wanted to be ready if that opportunity did indeed present itself.
MTD: Speaking of arena capacity, if you could go back to 2000, knowing what you know now, would you have built the MTS Centre with another 3,000 seats?
MC: We likely would have, but not for the reasons you’re probably thinking of. We’ve always maintained that those last 3,000 seats are the most costly to add but bring in the least revenue so from a purely business standpoint the return on investment and payback period don’t justify incurring those added costs. But so many Jets fans are unable to get tickets at any price that I’d be happy to have another 3,000 seats for those fans. For every fan I speak with who tells me how happy they are to have season tickets I have four or five who tell me how badly they wanted tickets but couldn’t get them. I’d love to be able to have more tickets for those fans. Not because of the revenue they’d generate but just so more hockey fans could share in the experience.
MTD: The ‘Drive to 13,000’ process wasn’t without its detractors. Anything you’d do different there?
MC: We felt strongly that Moose season ticket holders should have been rewarded for supporting our organization and I have no regrets giving them first crack at season tickets. That said, we canvassed a number of ways to recognize that loyalty and went with the one that we felt was fairest. Another plan we considered was simply letting Moose season ticket holders have first rights to their Moose seats but with the many mini-pack and half-season ticket holders out there the seat allocation process became too messy. I know there were a few loopholes that some people took advantage of but these instances were rare.
MC: Well, there’s a report of one couple where both he and she had a single nine-game Moose mini-pack in their personal names, and a second single nine-game Moose mini-pack in their business names. Since each seat was a separate account and each account was allowed four Jets season tickets this couple was able to parlay their four Moose nine-game packs into sixteen Jets season tickets. But instances like this were very rare.
MTD: The True North staff, and you yourself, talked about how much you had to do during the summer of 2011 to prepare for the NHL’s return. Looking back, can you see any way you could have spread the workload over a few months leading up to the summer of 2011?
MC: So much of the work that needed to be done was centered on the team name and we couldn’t move forward with things like logo and jersey design, merchandising, and even marketing plans without knowing the team name. And without a team, we certainly couldn’t name a team that we didn’t have!
MTD: Well, you’ve confirmed that you were offered the Coyotes as far back as 2010. Even though that fell through you must have been confident that Winnipeg was next in line for an NHL team. In reality, True North didn’t have five months to get some of these things done, they had 17 months. Would it have been possible for True North to start planning back in the summer of 2010? Have the logo design done under the guise of a Moose ‘Military Night’ edition to keep things quiet?
MC: That assumes we were going with a “Jets” name and that was far from certain back then. We had a lot of pressure from those inside the organization who wanted to keep the Moose name and looking back I was maybe a little too insulated from what the public would feel on the issue. I kept getting people in my inner circle telling me ‘It’ll work; they just want an NHL team regardless of the name”. One of the biggest surprises to me was just how passionate Winnipeggers were about that Jets name. A friend of mine who ran a fan forum put out the idea that we wouldn’t go with a Jets name and the feedback from his forum was pretty negative but it didn’t prepare me for the passionate plea the fans came out with once we had confirmed the team purchase.
MTD: You said before there were “two different categories. Those things that I would have done differently and those things that I would have wanted to do differently but couldn’t for one reason or another.” What are some of the things you would to have liked to do differently but couldn’t?
MC: The secrecy surrounding everything we were doing became very hard to maintain. No matter how tightly you try to run things a little tidbit slips out here and there and before you know it everyone in town knew someone inside True North who told them ‘the Jets are coming back’. I was confident that we’d have a team but we obviously couldn’t confirm anything or comment on it until the NHL gave its blessing. We’d send Scott Brown out to the media telling him to ‘deny, deny, deny’ but it started reminding us of the old Soviet Propaganda Ministers who would do their broadcasts saying how great everything was in the Soviet Union while it crumbled around them. It got to the point that whenever I’d see Scott on TV I’d start hearing his voice change to that of Officer Barbrady of South Park. “Move along people, nothing to see here...”
MTD: Given how hard you worked to keep everything under wraps, Stephen Brunt’s reporting of a deal being done on May 19th must have created some panic. Can you recall that night?
MC: I certainly can! I remember hearing the news while I was at a fundraising dinner and started receiving congratulations and handshakes for something that I didn’t know happened, and actually had not happened yet. Looking back I can get a laugh but at the time I remember trying to drive through Portage and Main and being blocked in by people celebrating.
MTD: Just out of pure luck, Gary Bettman, who was taking in a game when Brunt’s report hit, was captured on TV as he was reading the breaking news on his Blackberry. Can you recall his reaction?
MC: Very much so. He called me right as we were stuck at Portage and Main and I recall him asking “Do you know that someone broke the news? Do you know I’m receiving text messages about this?” I remember saying:”You’re receiving texts? Oh my. Here I am at midnight, stuck at Canada’s windiest corner surrounded by thousands of hockey fans cheering ‘Go Jets Go’, there’s an impromptu hockey game that’s broken out in the street, and Santa Claus has donned his vintage Teemu Selanne jersey and is dancing with a replica Stanley Cup on his Harley to the catchy sounds of Van Halen’s 1984 hit ‘Jump,’, but you’re receiving texts! I hope you can deal with the situation Gary because I’m a little tied up right now!”
MTD: Anything else you wanted to say to Gary that night?
MC: (laughing) I would have asked for the first preseason game on September 20th to be moved. I had to miss the first game our team was playing to be in New York for an NHL Board of Governors meeting.
MTD: Thanks so much Mark for taking the time out to do this. I’m not planning on shopping this discussion to the Globe and Mail but are you OK if I post it on the Lucky 7 Blog?
MC: Sure, and thanks for asking me before you just put it out there.
The foregoing interview is a work of fiction and is intended to be used for entertainment purposes only. Any resemblance to how Mark Chipman would actually answer these questions is purely coincidental.