A lot has happened since the let down of all let downs for Winnipeggers in 1996 when their beloved Jets were relocated to Phoenix, Arizona. Many plans failed to save the Jets at that time due to the economic strides the NHL was making and it wasn’t in the cards for a small market like Winnipeg to be able to keep their team viable. Many folks went on the record at the time saying it was not possible for a team to ever return to Winnipeg. Winnipeg native and CBC broadcaster Scott Oake was one who argued that point. Now, Oake and others like him are arguing the opposite point. Nothing against them, as the prospects were dire at the time and I would have been saying the same thing.
One guy who had faith from day one that things COULD change and that Winnipeg could have NHL hockey again should the pieces fall into place, is Winnipeg resident Darren Ford, who has been operating JetsOwner.com since 2003. Darren made many valid points on his website when it first opened that made me think it was possible for NHL hockey to be played in Winnipeg again. I discovered Darren’s website while sitting in my college apartment pre-lockout in 2003. I would exchange e-mails with him about possibilities back then and have kept in touch with the site until now. A lot of what Darren predicted could happen actually did happen. What’s even more impressive about that is the fact that his points seemed really far-fetched at the time. In 2003, the NHL had no salary cap, and the US dollar was valued much higher than the loonie. The Winnipeg Arena was still standing as the city’s only real venue for concerts and other events, as the city had not broken ground on the MTS Centre until April of 2003.
Darren’s site caught on really quick with the public, both within Winnipeg and also outside of Winnipeg. In addition to Winnipeg, many hockey fans throughout North America caught on and soon Darren opened a “Return of the Jets” forum where fans throughout North America could share their thoughts about the probability of the Jets returning, and other hot NHL topics. The forum is extremely popular still as of today.
Now, things are really falling into line for the Winnipeg NHL reconnect. They finally have the deep pocketed ownership with True North’s Mark Chipman, and billionaire David Thomson. They have a building that the NHL believes is viable even though it would only seat just over 15,000. Cost studies have proven that the NHL can work in Winnipeg with the new CBA. The Canadian dollar being over par doesn’t hurt either. I felt like now was as good a time as ever to follow up with Darren regarding his site and the optimism surrounding the NHL’s return. Below is the recent conversation I had with Darren.
Justin: When you first started your site JetsOwner.com in 2003, did you ever think your site would turn in to what it has today? You get massive amounts of traffic, your sources seem to get their story right way before the mainstream media. You have a large following on your forums. Did you envision this?
Darren Ford: You know, I always thought it would be successful. The whole purpose was for it to get out. But I don’t think I understood what it might become. I should have known better. Literally the next day, there was just a flood of e-mails. A lot of people felt the same way, but someone had to have the [guts] to be called a lunatic for five years. Now I’m not so much of a lunatic anymore.
Justin: When you started the site, Winnipeg Arena was still the primary venue in Winnipeg and they had just broken ground on the MTS Centre in 2003. It was really wishful thinking at the time. The dollar was weak and there was no cap in the NHL. When you first started this movement did you really think there was a chance that all these things that were working against you could actually fall into place and happen?
Darren Ford: Well, yeah. That’s why I laid it out. I told people it seems crazy and a lot of things have to line up at the same time, but it’s just like playing the slots. It could happen. As I got to know more and more people because of it and gain some credibility and sources (some incredible sources), I realized I wasn’t just hoping someone was doing this, someone was. It was the current owners of [our AHL team, the Manitoba Moose]. I learned about many things along the way but I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t going to jeopardize the relationships that I’d gained. It started to become reality and I thought, “All of these things are coming into place,” and they weren’t really lucky guesses. They were educated, but I felt they would all come to fruition at some point.
Justin: I’ve noticed in the last couple years you’ve kept a low profile on your site. Obviously, all kinds of rumors run wild on your message boards all day and you don’t say as much anymore. Are you trying to protect your sources at this stage of the game?
Darren Ford: Yeah, you know, it’s safe to say that’s part of it. But there is another part to it and it’s that after a while there’s not a whole lot left to say without being repetitive. I could go on there every day if people wanted me to and just repeat myself over and over, but then the message gets tired. Instead of posting something every other day like I used to, when it’s time to speak up I will. I also use the [message boards] to my advantage too. If I don’t really want it to be an official statement, I kind of throw it onto the boards. If I want it to be more official I throw it on to the main site.
Justin: I know you’ve been to your fair share of Moose games and are really familiar with the MTS Centre. It seems like it’s split among members of the media. Half of them think it’s NHL ready and a great facility and yet you still have critics who say it isn’t. I read about the press box expansion and we all know about the capacity (just north of 15,000). Do you think they built this arena with the NHL in mind and are some of the other facilities (locker room, etc.) up to NHL standards?
Darren Ford: In terms of the depth of the building, it’s beyond top notch. Was it thrown on a smallish piece of land? Yeah. But it’s a very unique building. It will be extremely intimate, and it’s the right size for our market. True North Sports & Entertainment have a grander scheme with the entertainment district. They have the potential to generate revenues all around the building about a block or two each way. It’s a unique situation. A lot of teams around the league share with NBA teams and are just leasing the building, but these guys own this building and generate revenue from every single concert and circus that rolls through it. The money generated by this “small building” as people call it, far exceeds what many NHL building contracts can generate. It’s a unique situation and people never look past the capacity to see that an extra 2,000 cheap seats can’t even come close to [the revenue] they can potentially generate with these other plans. It’s going to be quite a thing when all is said and done.
Justin: One thing I’ve noticed since following your site all of these years is that recently and even from the beginning, there’s been a lot of support from all around North America. It caught the eye of not only Winnipeggers, but people like myself (being in Philadelphia), and people all around North America that believe NHL hockey can succeed in Winnipeg again. How cool is that to see the widespread support?
Darren Ford: Yeah, it really did. In fact I remember when Bruce [Hollingdrake] started The Hockey Writers and there was interest about the pieces then. I designed the original logo for The Hockey Writers and I just wanted to help him out in the beginning. I started writing a few pieces and I thought they were great, and after 5 weeks I realized you know it’s really hard to write about a team that doesn’t exist. There are only so many topics you can discuss if the team is fiction. Once this team is back there will be something to write about.
Justin: There have been a lot of reports that True North might elect to use a different team name than the Winnipeg Jets when they return to the NHL. I just find it hard to believe, especially if it’s the same franchise (the Coyotes) that ends up coming back to town that they wouldn’t at least use the name Jets.
Darren Ford: You know, that all makes sense, but I know this ownership has a real desire to completely start fresh. I agree, it’d be difficult when you’re actually getting your own franchise back. I just have a really good hunch that they may want to call it Manitoba because they have built such a strong brand over the past 15 years with this name. It might make it difficult for teams like the Flyers to market Manitoba coming to town so it’ll be tough for a bit, but it will sink in over time. Time will tell. Hey, whatever it’s called let’s just get one.
Justin: So I just have to throw this one in there for your followers. The “Jet-O-Meter” which started on your JetsOwner.com site which TSN uses a very similar version of now (laughs), in regards to the probability of NHL’s return to Winnipeg has been at 96% for awhile. From 96% to 100% is there any scenario you’d shift it higher before it’s at 100%?
Darren Ford: No, it’s going to go straight to 100%. I made the mistake before of putting it at 99% based on things that I learned pertaining to things here at home. That was up for about 10 minutes and it just caused a complete [expletive] for the lack of a better word. I just eased back because everybody started wondering what it was about. I just said, “Listen guys, the next time it goes it’s just going to be done.”
Justin: Obviously you started this site as a fan trying to make a difference. I couldn’t even imagine what Winnipeg was going through back in 1995-96. Losing a team has got to be the worst feeling in the world. I understand the reasons you started the site, but now you’ve sort of crossed into the media world where you’re looked at as a source. You’ve appeared on TSN, you’ve appeared on radio shows, you have a lot of good friends in the media. Has it sort of changed your lifestyle?
Darren Ford: I’ve always done lots of interviews. That’s never changed. However, one thing that has changed is they don’t just call me when they need me. There’s open dialogue all of the time with journalists. There’s more local radio things going on because people have taken note of the massive following, and it’s not just me, it’s the whole idea. When an article is written and posted online [regarding a possible NHL/Winnipeg situation] it’s on the forums within a minute. There’s so many people scouring and putting it on there. The first 2-3 years of this site I spent pretty much all of my time doing this because it was me against the world, but now there’s this army of people that are doing this stuff for me. I remember scanning them all because they were rare. Now if I were to scan every article, forget it.
Justin: Thanks for chatting about the happenings there in Winnipeg, Darren. I hope one day I’ll make the trip out there to celebrate with everyone whenever that time comes.
Thanks again to Darren Ford for having a good conversation on the Winnipeg story which is gaining more and more steam every day. Whether it be the Coyotes, Thrashers, or another situation that isn’t public yet, Winnipeg will have an NHL team soon. Their ownership group has done everything the way the NHL has asked and it has to be an exciting time for the people of the city. If you haven’t checked out Darren’s site over the past 8 years, I strongly recommend doing so now at JetsOwner.com. He’s a good guy and there’s a lot of good folks that contribute to the site and the message boards. It’s those people that I have met there over the years that confirm the fact (if you didn’t know already) that Winnipeggers are not the bad guys as some folks would have it. It’s not USA vs. Canada. They’re a passionate and deserving group of fans, and when this NHL opportunity finally comes, my money is on them, and “13,000.”
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Justin Johnson is a Senior Correspondent and has been covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers since the 2008-09 season. Justin has covered all levels of hockey across the United States and Canada. Justin is a graduate of Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ and currently resides in Southern New Jersey.