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Frozen Grounds: The Lesson of the Winnipeg Jets

Sports fans in Seattle may be getting excited at the prospect of getting the Sonics "back". But in truth, they'll never get the actual Sonics franchise back. Just ask hockey fans in Winnipeg.

Apr 5, 2012; Uniondale, NY, USA;  Winnipeg Jets goalie Chris Mason (50) makes a glove save during the first period against the New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.  Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE
Apr 5, 2012; Uniondale, NY, USA; Winnipeg Jets goalie Chris Mason (50) makes a glove save during the first period against the New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

Understandably, many sports fans in Seattle are very upset with the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the NBA Final. And for good reason. The team was pinched from the city in an ugly, unfair, and unscrupulous way, and they probably feel like that Final rightfully belongs to them. And many are plotting their revenge for when the Sonics 2.0 come back.

But, let's all hope Seattle doesn't turn into Winnipeg if/when that happens.

The original Winnipeg Jets were an expansion team in 1972 for the budding World Hockey Association (WHA), which was a hockey league set up to rival the National Hockey League (NHL). The WHA, which allowed Europeans to play in it unlike the NHL, lasted for six years before merging with the NHL. Technically, the original Winnipeg Jets, as they stand, originated in 1979 once they became a part of the NHL.

In 1996, due to the then steep decline of the Canadian dollar which seriously impacted NHL salaries for Canadian-based teams, the Winnipeg Jets owners were forced to sell the team and it was relocated to Phoenix. The city of Winnipeg wasn't without hockey for long. They had an American League Hockey (AHL) team (AAA minor leagues, in baseball vernacular) move into town the following season, but the fan base was disillusioned and very bitter with the NHL by it all.

Understandably, the former Jets fans kept a close eye on the Phoenix Coyotes, who kept up some of the traditions from Winnipeg and got the retired numbers banners of the Winnipeg franchise. You see, the history of the team is with its franchise, not with its city. The people of the city might not like that much, but they don't get to keep the championship banners, do they.

So when it became apparent that hockey wasn't working in Phoenix due to bad ownership and missing the playoffs consistently, Winnipeg fans were drooling over the prospect of getting their team back. Because, you know, they deserved hockey and Phoenix obviously didn't. Hockey didn't belong in the desert, they said. Americans can't possibly be good hockey fans, they said. Canada was where hockey belonged; it was hockey's rightful and only place, even.

The owners of the AHL team made it known that they would like to buy an NHL team - with an eye on Phoenix, of course. Last year, they got their wish. But they didn't get the previous Winnipeg franchise, as they'd hoped.

The Atlanta Thrashers owners - another inept ownership group that was trying to run a hockey team - announced rather abruptly to the NHL that they were going to either declare bankruptcy or sell the team. As the NHL was already in a bind with owning the Phoenix Coyotes and dealing with other ownership and potential bankruptcy issues around the league, had no choice but to let the team be sold. Much to their displeasure.

So, Atlanta was sold in a matter if weeks to the group in Winnipeg that owned the AHL team. The AHL team was disbanded, and the NHL team was relocated. It happened so quickly that the NHL didn't have time to realign the divisions within the league, so the team in Winnipeg is still a part of the Southeast Division, which is located in the US South. The NHL was not at all happy about the turn of events, but there wasn't much they could do about it as they were already stretched pretty thin.

The new owners in Winnipeg reportedly had no intention of using the Jets moniker. They had wanted to put their own brand on the team, making it into something new. But the fans wanted none of that. They wanted their "Jets" back, and they made a big fuss about it until they got them.

Thus, the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 was born, and this is where the story turns ugly.

You see, now that the Jets were "back" - though, not really, since it was an entirely different franchise - a portion of the Winnipeg fan base and media were trying to revise history. Some decided to pretend that it was really an expansion team that had no previous history. Others decided to pretend that the team was a continuation of their previous beloved Jets.

Remarkably, a very few were still not satisfied since they didn't get their real Jets back from Phoenix, and still hold out hope that that might happen one day.

The ownership was very careful to make sure that the new uniforms were nothing like the old, despite using the same colors (and adding one more). The owners were also careful to make sure to acknowledge the previous history of the franchise, which originated in Atlanta. The ownership does things the right way, as shown by their newest addition to their website, their franchise drafting infographic that starts in 1999, not 1979.

But that wasn't good enough for some of the fans and the media. If they weren't busy revising history, or complaining about how they should've waited for the Phoenix franchise, then they were out reviling the NHL fans in Atlanta. They were denigrating hockey fans in Atlanta as proof that hockey didn't belong in places where lakes didn't freeze over and it didn't snow. That Atlanta was a horrible hockey town and that they deserved to have their team taken away from them - all the while ignoring what it felt like when that happened to them.

Not all Winnipeg fans and media are like that, of course. The majority was very happy to have hockey back in their city, and some were even sympathetic to those fans in Atlanta that had lost their team. They're good people who were just thrilled and relieved to have what they thought was rightfully theirs restored back to them.

But those who scream loudest get the most press, and those ugly fans and media were very loud.

Those fans were so ugly, in fact, that NHL fans from the other Canadian-based teams were extremely critical and apologizing for them. They almost instantly became the most hated NHL team in Canada, taking that title from the Vancouver Canucks. Needless to say, the fans from the Southeast Division of the NHL - the division that the Thrashers were originally in - didn't like them one bit, as their bias was mostly regional. And it was all because of a small portion of the fans and media who ruined it all for the rest of the fan base.

Which is why I'm against using the name "SuperSonics" as a team name for the next NBA team in Seattle. I've seen the nastiness that has come out of Winnipeg, and most of it originated from using the previous team moniker again. It was a big mistake, and one that I'm afraid Seattle will fall into as well, and for the same reason: to appease the fans.