The Winnipeg Jets would be wise to do the dishes, sweep the floors, fold the laundry and fluff the pillows. Maybe light a few candles and break out the fine china. Really spruce the place up a bit.
Company is coming — and these are no ordinary visitors.
No, it’s not about the high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs, who arrive in town today to play their annual shinny match at Bell MTS Place. This might be the most anticipated meeting in their history, given the two hockey heavyweights are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Rather, it’s about a new audience about to be exposed to a franchise that Jets captain Blake Wheeler said just last spring goes largely “under the radar” outside of River City. A laughable sentiment now, for sure.
Because colour us surprised when, while watching Sunday Night Football on NBC, a promo ran plugging the Jets-Leafs game as part of their Wednesday Night Hockey series on NBCSN.
Two Canadian teams? On primetime national American television? Surely that must be a mistake.
Not according to Sam Flood, the Boston-born executive producer who says this game was immediately dubbed must-see TV when the network was putting together their broadcast schedule over the summer.
They’re sending their ‘A” team, too, with the legendary Doc Emrick calling the contest. Apparently it’s his first time in town in 23 years. Hopefully somebody gives him directions from the airport, because a few things have changed since then. There’ll be no pre-game meal at Chi-Chi’s this time around. Luckily he’ll have broadcast partner and former Jets skater Eddie Olczyk to act as a tour guide.
The entire studio panel is taking their show on the road and joining them, broadcasting their pre-game activities from newly minted True North Square. The public plaza will host a pre-game party for selected fans — rewards members and corporate partners who received passes. Randy Bachman, Doc Walker and Terra Lightfoot are scheduled to perform.
The hype machine will be in overdrive. The Centre of the Hockey Universe versus the Little House on the Prairie. A city full of people used to outsiders mocking and ridiculing us won’t know what to do with themselves. And yes, a little history will be made. This is the first-ever all-Canadian regular-season broadcast produced by NBC Sports.
This is no ordinary October Wednesday in Winnipeg.
“We’re realistic knowing that with no U.S. market the (ratings) number won’t be as high. But we also know to grow the game of hockey and get the audience aware of the incredible talent on a team like the Jets, on a team like the Maple Leafs, we have to lead them and engage them in these games,” Flood told me Tuesday.
“Some of the best hockey is being played north of the border. We shouldn’t be afraid of it. We should embrace it and celebrate it, which is what we’re doing.”
That means fewer games featuring traditional staples such as the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks, former powerhouses who are all going through tough times.
“We saw how the game is changing. The star players are spread outside some of the core, old-school markets. We need new places and new stars to get the hockey fans excited about,” says Flood.
Tonight’s game will have plenty of those. Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner for the visitors, and the likes of Wheeler, Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele for the home team. The Jets, at 6-2-1, and the Leafs, at 6-3-0. In the words of Bob Cole, “Oh, baby!”
Flood says his network watched with interest as the Jets marched to the Western Conference final last spring. Winnipeg’s energy, both inside the Whiteout-clad rink and outside at downtown street parties that swelled by the game, was infectious.
“The Jets are a heck of a hockey team. They’re the real deal. It’s a deep roster,” said Flood.
“This is as much fun as you can have, watching these teams play. I think it adds a chip to the game, because there’s even more desire to knock off the Maple Leafs because everyone’s paying so much attention to them. It’s almost like the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL, there’s extra joy, I think, teams having knocked off the Cowboys, or the (New England) Patriots, teams that get a lot of attention.”
Flood floats another interesting NFL comparison when talking about Winnipeg — suggesting it has the potential to be a future ratings monster south of the border like a certain small-market football franchise.
“You can put the Green Bay Packers on television and massive ratings follow. Why shouldn’t that be the case for great teams in Canada getting a big following once we build an understanding in (the United States) of how special it is to watch a Jets game, how special the environment is in Winnipeg and the passion of that fan base, which makes it every time they step on the ice an event that takes over the city,” he said.
Of course, it’s all relative considering NHL ratings are barely a blip on the radar compared to the NFL. But this isn’t just some one-hit wonder for Winnipeg. The Jets will appear on NBCSN four more times during the regular season, suggesting they like us. They really like us.
Throw in the fact Wednesday’s game is also a national Canadian broadcast on Sportsnet and there might be more eyeballs on the Jets than than on any regular-season game in their history. The two teams will also play a rematch Saturday night at Scotiabank Centre on Hockey Night in Canada.
“I think it’s important. We want to grow this game. And we want to grow the NHL. Being able to get that national coverage is huge,” Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a Michigan native, said Tuesday of the all-Canadian contest getting play in his home country.
“There will be a good buzz in the building for sure,” added Jets coach Paul Maurice. “I think the fans in the States love hockey and this should be a really fast, skilled, very competitive game. So it’s good for the game.”
All of which must have everyone around these parts a bit nervous. Unlike NBC, the Jets haven’t exactly brought their A game so far this season, even if they’ve managed to pull a few rabbits out of their helmets and win six of their first nine games.
Wheeler mentioned as much following Monday’s improbable comeback win over St. Louis, suggesting this young club is “carrying a lot of weight, carrying a lot of expectation” which is “inhibiting” it from playing its best.
Well, that’s about to be ratcheted up big-time this week. And the potential to crack under pressure and lay an egg on a grand stage certainly exists if the Jets don’t clean up some parts of their game.
Fortunately they’ve been really tidy at home, going 4-0-1 on this current homestand and 14-0-1 in their past 15 regular-season games at Bell MTS Place.
Not exactly rolling out the welcome mat. Downright inhospitable, in fact. Which is just the way they like it.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.