After watching the National Hockey League depart Winnipeg in 1996 and waiting 15 long years for its return, Sunday's opening night game against the Montreal Canadiens
was a mixed bag of emotions for Jets chairman Mark Chipman.
"Exciting on the one hand, very humbling on the other, and then obviously very disappointing with the loss," Chipman said Thursday while appearing as a guest on "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman," where the Jets' 5-1 loss to the Habs in their inaugural game back in Winnipeg was just one of many topics broached.
Despite the end result, the fans who made up the first of many sellout crowds to come at the MTS Centre never lost their enthusiasm or stopped displaying their deep appreciation at having an NHL team back in Manitoba.
"We've got great fans," Chipman said. "The League has great fans, and I think there's an obligation for all of us involved in this business to do our best to put competitive teams on the ice. We feel like we've got a good, young team and we're going to be very patient. This is a long road … there's no easy ways to be successful in this business, there's no quick fixes. I'm realistic, I know where we are as a hockey team, but that's never going to quench my desire to win hockey games. That's what this business is all about for me."
Chipman grew up in Winnipeg and explained to Bettman how he grew up playing both hockey and football, but gave up the former around age 15 after his father suggested he make a choice. Chipman realized he was a better football player, and went on to play for a while at the University of North Dakota before eventually
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going to law school.
Chipman later moved back to Winnipeg to help run his family's business and was part of a local group that attempted to save the original Jets, who relocated to Phoenix in the summer of 1996. At that point, he invested his time, energy and money in bringing an IHL team to Manitoba -- it would be christened the Moose and become part of the AHL in 2001, starting a decade-long run in that league.
"Over that course of time we sort of just plodded along quietly and carefully, got an arena built in Winnipeg and then I introduced myself to you, Gary, and the rest is history -- now found ourselves back in the National Hockey League, and I can't tell you how proud I am for our city to be back amongst those 30 teams," Chipman said.
While talks to build an arena that could have kept the original Jets in Winnipeg were described by Chipman as being "acrimonious," he revisited the issue in the early part of the last decade and succeeded in getting the MTS Centre built in time to open for the 2004-05 season. Not only did it provide a world-class home for the Moose, it succeeded in attracting concerts and other events -- becoming, Chipman said, the third-busiest building in Canada.
Meanwhile, Chipman was running the Moose as close as he possibly could to the business model of an NHL franchise.
"It was just the right thing to do," he said. "The people that I hired back in '96, many of them came to us from the Jets organization -- those who didn't go to Phoenix. Most notably Craig Heisinger, who was then the equipment manager and is now our assistant GM. We just felt strongly that you have to create an environment for players to succeed in, and if you do those little things then the word spreads and players want to play for you."
The moment Chipman was hoping and waiting for finally arrived on May 31, when his True North Sports and Entertainment group announced the purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers with the intention of moving the team to Winnipeg. At that point, preparations for the 2011-12 season could really begin -- and two of the bigger tasks, which came with great fan scrutiny, were the franchise's new name and uniform.
"It was a fun part, but it was a daunting exercise," Chipman said. "We had explored some other names and really didn't settle on the Jet name until just prior to the draft. We kind of knew that name was always there for us, but we wanted to do a real thorough exploration of that name in terms of creating a new look and feel for us.
"The League has great fans, and I think there's an obligation for all of us involved in this business to do our best to put competitive teams on the ice. We feel like we've got a good, young team and we're going to be very patient. This is a long road … there's no easy ways to be successful in this business, there's no quick fixes. I'm realistic, I know where we are as a hockey team, but that's never going to quench my desire to win hockey games." -- Mark Chipman
"We were fortunate, we've got some very talented people in-house, but we were also able to tap into the resources of the people at Reebok, who were phenomenal, who basically turned their entire design team over to us. Once we got a feel, a concept locked down, we were able to borrow from the Air Force history of our country, and once Reebok went to work on it, it actually went very smoothly. And ultimately what we unveiled several weeks ago, we felt really, really good about it, and so far our fans are really pleased with it as well."
Chipman also spoke about his decade-long partnership with David Thomson, who owned the land the MTS Centre was built on.
"We've developed a very strong partnership and a very strong friendship," Chipman said. "He's placed a lot of faith in me and trust in allowing me to sort of navigate through this process that landed us back in the NHL. He's very passionate about the game, very passionate Canadian, and extremely passionate about our community. I'm absolutely blessed to be partnered up with a guy who cares as much as he does about the game and our country and our community."