The history of the Jets fanbase in Winnipeg is a rich tapestry woven through time, transcending leagues and defying the odds.
As most are aware, the Arizona Coyotes began their life in Winnipeg, first as a member of the now long-defunct WHA. Four teams made the hop from the WHA to the NHL – in addition to the aforementioned Jets later moving to the desert, the league saw the additions of the Hartford Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes), the Quebec Nordiques who have since been moved to Colorado as the Avalanche, and the Edmonton Oilers.
Expansion of the NHL obviously has not stopped since the WHA-NHL merger, seeing the additions of San Jose and Anaheim in California, Ottawa, Tampa and Sunrise in Florida along with Nashville, Tennessee; in addition to expansion to 30 teams in the 2000-2001, hockey also returns to Atlanta, nearly 20 years after the Flames move to Calgary, in the form of the Thrashers.
The Thrashers were not fated to stay long in Atlanta; after ownership changed hands from Time Warner to Atlanta Spirit Group. Questionable intent of keeping the team in Atlanta right from the moment of purchase, combined with economic decline in the Atlanta area, resulted in the ASG looking for new investors. While there were many offers from local investors that would have served to keep the team in Atlanta, ultimately the sale was completed to True North Sports, and the return of the Winnipeg Jets was under way. Winnipeg was finally going to see the NHL play in the city once more.
A fanbase’s memory is long; it stretches out over generations and the records, rivalries, and legends are never dead as long as the fans are there, even when the team is not.
This has resulted in some complicated feelings and some interesting moments for the current iteration of the Winnipeg Jets; Teemu Selanne is a beloved player to the city of Winnipeg – but he never wore the current crest of the team. Ilya Kovalchuk, as of the time of writing, holds a number of records for the current Jets franchise – though he has never played for the Jets, his records from his time in Atlanta stand. 37 was “soft-retired” – it was not handed out or worn in Atlanta after the tragic car accident that killed Dan Snyder – but the Jets honor Snyder’s memory each year with an award in his memory, and Connor Hellebuyck reached out to the family to ask permission to wear 37 as he did prior to playing in the NHL. The Snyder family more than happily said yes, and Hellebuyck chose to honour him with a unique patch sewn inside the sweater, with the name Snyder and number 37 written out in the same font used by the Thrashers in Atlanta.
So while the Winnipeg fanbase memory has a break in it lacking hockey, this franchise was writing its first decade of history in the United States’ deep south; today, four players remain with the Jets who’s time with the franchise originates with the team in Atlanta.
The first of the four is Ben Chiarot, drafted in the 4th round of the 2009 Entry Draft. He made his debut with the AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves later that year, but saw no NHL play until a call-up in 2014 after a strong campaign in the AHL with then-affiliate St. John’s IceCaps. Chiarot’s development in the NHL has been slow, but over the last few seasons, and so far through this one, he has found a home in the middle defensive pairing. Chiarot’s game isn’t going to blow away a new fan to the game, but his potential can be seen regularly, including the breakaway chance during this weekend’s track meet with the Lightning.
Chiarot can be found on the blueline paired with another ex-Thrasher in the big man with the A, Dustin Byfuglien. Byfuglien came to the franchise as part of one of a pair of deals between them and Atlanta following Stanley Cup victories by Chicago. Byfuglien is a quiet man when the primary interviewee of the media, but has been known to have quite a bit of fun while others are facing down the mics. Byfuglien is also hard to miss – listed at 6’5, 265 lbs, he has montage after montage of hits on YouTube. Plenty has been written about Byfuglien earlier in our Jetsmas Countdown, but what he brings to the team off the ice, on the ice with his skill, and a bonus likeness on Hellebuyck’s mask cannot be undersold – the Jets would be a fundamentally different team without Big Buff.
Another former Thrasher wearing a letter on the front of his jersey is the captain, Blake Wheeler. Wheeler went unsigned by the Coyotes out of his draft, going 5th overall in 2004. He signed his entry level contract in Boston, and was part of the trade that sent Rich Peverley north while Wheeler and Mark Stuart south to Atlanta. Wheeler will also be the focus of a piece later in the countdown, but what Wheeler has brought to this iteration of the Winnipeg Jets is irreplaceable. His impact on the attack, his composure during the most intense moments of the game, and his ability to improve those on the ice with him (his assist count speaks for itself on this one) make him an easy partner on the ice, while his leadership on and off the ice have cemented him in the hearts of both the Jets players and the Jets fans.
The fourth and final remaining Thrasher with the Jets is Bryan Little. Little has been a consistent albeit quiet performer with the team since his time in Atlanta. Little has never been the flashiest player, but a lot of the hype surrounding this 12th overall draft pick from 2006 has been lost due to his constantly battling injury – he has only played a full 82 games twice. Over the last couple of season Little has found his stride, centreing for the Jets prolific 2nd line, featuring one Patrik Laine.
While the remaining Thrashers with the Jets number only four, their impact is an important one on not only the history of the franchise in Winnipeg, but also its future. The Winnipeg Jets today are a one-of-a-kind blend of hockey histories, seeing the storied history of Canadian hockey be thrust upon an expansion team from the US deep south. For some, nothing matters more than seeing hockey return to the centre of Canada; others see irony in watching their team leave for a city that once suffered the same fate to their team. For those like myself, however, the opportunity to see the franchise and players so beloved for so long is simply worth a look back now, even as we look towards the future, no matter where the team is located.