With the Stanley Cup Final now concluded, it’s time to start looking at the off-ice business to be conducted this summer. One of the main points that’ll need to be settled quickly is the name of Winnipeg’s new team, the relocated Atlanta Thrashers. This will presumably be announced sometime between the June 21 Board of Governors meeting and the June 24 Entry Draft. While many want to see the Jets name return, and Gary Bettman has said that the NHL won’t stand in the way, I think that recycling the Jets name is a poor idea, and that there are a number of other worthy ideas that should be considered.
Part I: Why Not the Jets?
A Winnipeg Free Press poll shows that nearly 2/3 of respondents favour “Jets” over any other name. An online petition supporting the name has over 13,000 virtual signatures. There’ve been so many articles written on both blogs and MSM websites about Why They Should Be the Jets that it’s not even worth trying to link them all. The persistent chant at all the rallies these last couple of years has been “Go Jets Go!” All of these things are excellent economic arguments against calling the team the Jets. After all, how many people are going to go out and buy “new” Jets jerseys, even with a redesign? The season ticket holders probably will: they’ve already shown a willingness to invest five figures in the team, so what’s another couple hundred bucks? The rest of the fans, the ones watching at bars or at home, are more likely to figure that their classic Jets jerseys are just as good. Sure, over time, people will eventually buy in – and they’ll empty their wallets at the first sign of a genuine playoff run – but I believe more fans would invest in a completely new branding than a fresh coat of paint on an old, nostalgic favourite.
Speaking of nostalgia, there’s an emotional argument to be made, too. While some fans would love to have “their” team back, even if it’s not the same one that left, the departure of the Jets is an old wound that many would really prefer not to re-open. They went to the rallies, they raised money through school and the office, they busted open their piggy banks, all for naught. Eventually, most of them moved on: to new NHL teams, or the Moose, or a junior club. Fifteen years later, the Jets could be coming back; but can they, really? As my girlfriend, an ex-Winnipegger, put it, “it wouldn’t be the same.” They wouldn’t be “her” Jets. She explained to me that calling the team the Jets would make it very easy to mar the nostalgic love people there have for the Jets, replacing it with a reality that can never live up to the memories. She’d rather see them called anything but the Jets, and as an outsider, it’s hard to disagree. It’s like comparing a new love to a deceased spouse: however good that new love is, there are so many great memories from before that any comparison becomes inherently unfair. Or put more succinctly, you can’t go home again.
For me, though, the real objection comes down to history. First, there’s no historical precedent in the NHL for giving an old team name to a relocated franchise, especially when that old team that still exists elsewhere. These are all the markets to be given a “second chance” by the NHL since its inception:
• Montreal Wanderers fold (1918); Montreal Maroons formed (1924)1
• Quebec Bulldogs move to Hamilton (1920); Quebec Nordiques formed (1972), join NHL (1979)
• Pittsburgh Pirates move to Philadelphia (1930); Pittsburgh Penguins formed (1967)
• Philadelphia Quakers fold (1931); Philadelphia Flyers formed (1967)
• Ottawa Senators move to St. Louis (1934); Ottawa Senators II formed (1992)
• St. Louis Eagles fold (1935); St. Louis Blues formed (1967)
• Oakland/California Seals move to Cleveland (1976); San Jose Sharks formed (1991)
• Atlanta Flames move to Calgary (1980); Atlanta Thrashers formed (1999)
• Minnesota North Stars move to Dallas (1993); Minnesota Wild formed (2000)
• Winnipeg Jets move to Phoenix (1996); Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg (2011)
Of those examples, only the Ottawa Senators adopted the name and history of their predecessors, and in that case, they (sort of) assumed the history of a team that had been dead for nearly 60 years. Additionally, only the San Jose Sharks had a legitimate claim to the history of a previously-relocated franchise2, but elected not to bother. The only real precedent for this in North American pro sport is the bizarre Cleveland Browns saga, in which the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, but then gave up their history and trademarks to an expansion team of the same name. Even when the Baltimore Stallions of the CFL moved to Montreal and took on the name and history of the old Alouettes – discarding their own in the process – that team had been dead for nearly a decade.
It could be argued that the Jets name can be used without transferring the history from the Phoenix Coyotes, but it would be exceedingly crass to capitalize on that nostalgia without acknowledging why it matters. Adopting the Jets’ history, however, creates a whole litany of problems. What do you do with their retired numbers, which the Coyotes currently honour? Do they go back into circulation for that franchise? What about Teppo Numminen, who was honoured by the Coyotes for his contributions to the franchise both before and after the move? Or Dale Hawerchuk, who never played for the Coyotes but didn’t have his number retired until 2007? On the Winnipeg side, do you let current players, like Evander Kane and Bryan Little, keep their numbers, or make them get new ones? And what about the Thrashers’ history? True North has pledged to carry on Dan Snyder’s legacy; how would that fit into any plan to include the Jets’ history? Can you have both sets of numbers retired?
The simplest solution seems to be not to bother with the Jets name whatsoever. Honour the legacy of the Jets by raising their banners in MTS Centre and creating a “Ring of Honour” for players like Hull, Hawerchuk, Steen, and Numminen, but don’t have it affect the new club in any way.
Part II: What Else Could They Be Called?
So, if not the Jets, then what? They can’t keep the name Thrashers, since Atlanta Spirit retained the rights to the name and logo, though I’ve heard some jokingly suggest they be called the Threshers. There had been rumours for months that True North was going to retain the Manitoba Moose name, a brand they’d spent 15 years cultivating. I suspect, however, that the same economic argument as before could be applied to the Moose name: why would people buy new stuff when they already have the old stuff? There were rumours of other names like Polar Bears and Whiteout, both of which sound patently ridiculous. The latter of those was actually copyrighted by True North, but that’s undoubtedly for future use in marketing materials, particularly come playoff time.
I talked to a co-worker recently, and we came up with a few name ideas that I really like. Note that any of these could be used with either “Winnipeg” or “Manitoba,” since it remains an open question as to which True North will use.
• Falcons: The second-most popular name on the Free Press poll I cited earlier, Falcons has a great historical connection to the area. Founded in 1908 through the merger of two hockey clubs for Icelandic-Canadians, the Falcons won the Allen Cup, for amateur hockey supremacy, in 1920. That year, they represented Canada at that year’s Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, manhandling the competition en route to the first-ever Olympic gold medal in ice hockey. Because all but one of the Olympians were descendants of Icelandic immigrants, to this day, Ice Hockey Iceland uses a falcon and Maple Leaf as its symbol. The most famous Falcons alumnus, however, was Mud Bruneteau, who ended the longest game in NHL history in 1936. It’s a name with great historical cachet, and would serve the team well, so long as they don’t wear those awful gold replica jerseys that got dug up a few years ago. Like the Habs’ and Sens’ barberpoles, it’s a design that looked good on wool under dim light that looks horrible under modern conditions.
• Warriors: Another name with history in the city, this one ranked fourth in the Free Press poll. There were two previous teams with the name: a minor-pro team that played in the ‘50s, and a junior team that played in the ‘80s, eventually moving to Moose Jaw. Notable NHLers among the Winnipeg Warriors alumni are Fred Shero, Ted Green, Hall of Famer Bill Mosienko (who scored the 21-second hat trick in 1952), and in the latter incarnation, longtime Manitoba Moose captain Mike Keane. It’s another solid hockey-team sort of name, though I suspect they’d need to take a completely different tack on the design than past incarnations. I say this not so much because any perceived racial insensitivity, but because any modernization would inevitably look like the Chicago Blackhawks.
• Aeros: Aeros is a name that evokes the Jets legacy without falling prey to many of the issues described above. Moreover, it’s a name with some hockey history: the name Aeros has long been associated with Houston, where it’s been the name of successful franchises in the WHA, IHL, and AHL. That minor-league association is, frankly, the only real problem I can see: the Houston Aeros are the current affiliate of the Minnesota Wild, which could make things potentially confusing. Still, it’s a name I’m quite fond of, and it feels like a nice compromise, though I’ll confess I’m not sure how likely such a compromise is to fly (ahem).
• Rebels: I thought this one was really clever on my co-worker’s part. Louis Riel, born near Winnipeg in 1844, led a pair of rebellions against the Canadian government, one in 1869 and one in 1885, both in the name of Métis rights. He was effectively exiled after the former, and executed for high treason after the latter. His reputation has been a subject of debate ever since, which makes naming the team for his actions controversial, to say the least. However, he’s now formally recognized by Parliament as the founder of the Province of Manitoba, by his actions in 1869, and Louis Riel Day is has been celebrated as a provincial holiday in Manitoba since 2008. Does that make it easier or harder to name the team Rebels? I really don’t know, but it’s an interesting idea nonetheless. Certainly, the name itself has a great deal of hockey history: the Rideau Hall Rebels were one of the earliest organized hockey teams, founded in 1884 by James Creighton, the father of organized hockey, and William and Arthur Stanley, sons of Lord Stanley of Preston. The WHL’s Red Deer Rebels are the best known modern example, but it’s a name that shows up all over lower levels of hockey here in Canada.
In the end, the name only matters so much. If the team develops into a Stanley Cup contender, fans will love them, whether they’re the Winnipeg Jets or Manitoba Mosquitoes. However, I would urge Winnipeggers, and True North in particular, not to get tunnel vision regarding the name. The Jets should be allowed to rest in peace, and Manitoban hockey fans should be allowed to move on. While it requires a little bit of outside-the-box thinking, casting back to the history of the province, and the history of hockey there in particular, there are a number of great ideas that fans could readily get on board with, if given the chance. While the new team will never replace the Jets, they can forge their own identity, and become something that fans of the Jets and Moose, as well as new fans of the game, can support with pride.
1 – This refers specifically to the Anglophone Montreal market; the Canadiens were predominantly marketed to the Francophone population until the Maroons folded in the late 1930s.
2 – In 1978, the Cleveland Barons merged with the Minnesota North Stars. In 1991, that merger was dissolved and a dispersal draft was held; both the North Stars and Sharks participated in the subsequent expansion draft. This is, for example, how Oilers defenceman Charlie Huddy wound up in LA: the North Stars took him in the expansion draft, and then traded him to the Kings in a package for Todd Elik.