The brand had been officially dormant since 1996 when the original Jets were sold to American suitors and became the Phoenix Coyotes but it has been kept alive in the hearts – and on the heads and upper torsos – of Jets fans ever since.
The brand got a pulse on May 31, when True North Sports & Entertainment announced it had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and would move them to Winnipeg immediately.
But with the original Jets still in Phoenix – for now anyway, despite hundreds of millions of dollars of losses since their move – there was much consternation at True North whether to resurrect the Jets brand or to launch a new one.
In repeated online polls, fans voted anywhere between two thirds and 90 per cent for the Jets name. Other monikers such as “Moose,” which is what Winnipeg’s American Hockey League team from 1996-2011 was called, and Falcons, in honor of the Winnipeg Falcons which won the Olympics’ first hockey gold medal in 1920, typically registered in single digits. Second place usually went to “other.”
After several weeks of rumors, innuendo and fourth-hand inside information, True North chairman Mark Chipman acquiesced to the many thousands of Jets fans who had voiced their support for bringing back the name.
He approached the microphone at the 2011 entry draft in St. Paul in June, thanked the NHL for welcoming True North and the AHL for its hospitality for the previous 15 years and then said, “It is now my pleasure to introduce our executive vice-president and general manager, Mr. Kevin Cheveldayoff, who will make our first pick on behalf of the Winnipeg Jets.”
For the hundreds of Jets fans who had driven for seven hours to attend the draft in person, thousands more who packed the MTS Centre in Winnipeg to watch the draft on the Jumbotron – yes, they watched a DRAFT on a giant screen – and thousands upon thousands more both in Winnipeg and around the world, it was as if the angels had come down from heaven and uttered the words themselves.
After all, it takes a unique narrative to get an entire population of grown men to weep with joy.
Immediately after making the much-anticipated announcement, Chipman said he and his brain trust had considered going in a different direction with a new name. But after consulting friends, family and guys with whom he had grown up playing hockey, they kept coming back to “Jets.”
“It was the right decision to make. There’s so much great heritage and history behind the name. We’re really honored to carry it forward now,” he says.
In the end, Chipman and True North were left with no choice, according to a pair of local branding experts. Derrick Coupland, a partner at Blacksheep Strategy, says there was virtually no risk with relaunching the name that was synonymous with hockey in Winnipeg from 1972 to 1996. Before the team joined the NHL in the 1979-80 season, it was the most successful squad in the seven-year history of the World Hockey Association, winning three AVCO Cups, the league' championship trophy.
More importantly, the Jets brand took flight from North America thanks to its first-of-a-kind scouting system that found star players in the far-away outposts of Sweden and Finland. Swedes Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg, Kent Nilsson (no relation) and Willy Lindstrom and Finns Veli Pekka-Ketola and Heikki Rihiranta joined forces with the likes of Bobby Hull, the league’s marquee name, to create some of the most exciting hockey ever seen. (Glen Sather, the architect of the mid-1980s Edmonton Oilers dynasty that featured Wayne Gretzky and a host of other future Hall of Famers, said the mid-70s Jets were his inspiration and blue print.)
Coupland calls the Jets a powerful, locally-embedded brand.
“The pulse was kept beating by the customer. When the opportunity came to bring a franchise back to Winnipeg, because of that ongoing affinity for the Jets, it was fairly obvious that pulse was still beating strongly. It was the first and obvious choice to select for the hockey team,” he says.
“It’s almost a Cinderrella branding story. It’s a perfect case study for the enduring power of a brand.”
Peter George, CEO of McKim Cringan George, a Winnipeg-based advertising agency, says he wasn’t surprised that Chipman et al revived the Jets brand. After all, they’ve long been populists. Two of the most obvious examples include appeasing opponents of the construction of the MTS Centre in 2002-03 by changing the design to include red brick so it would be reminiscent of the old Eaton’s department store, which stood on the very same downtown site for nearly a century. True North also placed the statue of the now-defunct retailer’s founder, Timothy Eaton, on the second floor of the MTS Centre.
“People can still go rub (the statue’s) shoe (for good luck). True North has always been very savvy in terms of being in touch with their fans and playing to the popular demands,” he says.
Coupland says based on the anecdotal feedback he has heard, it seems as if all of North America is behind Winnipeg having the Jets back.
“I don’t think that sentiment would have been as strong and passionate if the team had been called anything but the Jets,” he says.
Coupland says about half of the 15,000 people in attendance at the pre-season he attended were wearing vintage jerseys. Had the new team been named something else, they would have shown up in the same attire, he says, which could have caused problems.
“It’s the same as Pepsi apparel-wearing people showing up at a Coke convention. It’s not necessarily a disaster, but it’s sure not god for the brand,” he says.