NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Winnipeg Jets’ future: ‘I believe this is a strong market’

WINNIPEG — It’s not Gary Bettman’s presence in Winnipeg that’s alarming to Jets fans. It’s his purpose.

The NHL commissioner drops in on most markets over the course of a typical season. He addressed Winnipeg media last season, opening his remarks by saying he had no emergency to address or news to announce.

This season’s visit came with the perception of higher stakes. Jets chairman Mark Chipman revealed to The Athletic last week that Winnipeg season-ticket sales have declined 27 percent over the course of three years, falling from approximately 13,000 to just under 9,500.

“I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t say, ‘We’ve got to get back to 13,000,’” Chipman said last week. “This place we find ourselves in right now, it’s not going to work over the long haul. It just isn’t.”

Thus Bettman being in Winnipeg on Tuesday takes on a larger sense of urgency. He may have spent time with True North staff and local businesspeople last season. He may have spoken to Jets attendance issues then, too — they played to 93.6 percent capacity, according to Hockey Reference — but his tone was largely comforting.

“I wouldn’t suggest that there’s a crisis here,” Bettman said in November 2022. “For a team to be at its peak success, it needs broad support. And to the extent that the fans who came more frequently have had either distractions or issues we’re hoping they’ll be back soon.”

However, the Jets have played to 87.3 percent capacity so far in 2023-24. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Bettman downplayed the fears that the franchise is facing imminent relocation if the season-ticket base doesn’t increase soon.

“This is a place, Winnipeg, where hockey matters. I believe this is a strong NHL market, ” he said. “I don’t view this as a crisis but I do believe, as with any team in any market, there needs to be collaboration between the community and the fan base and the club and I believe ultimately it will be here.”

“Obviously, the attendance needs to improve,” Bettman added. “I have a confidence in the organization and more importantly I have confidence in this community.”

Chipman has taken matters into his own hands, calling former season-ticket holders to get a better sense of why they gave up their seats. He’s even made house calls: Chipman was joined by star players Josh Morrissey and Mark Scheifele on a recent visit to a former season-ticket holder’s home. It’s part of an overall strategy to improve True North’s customer service and sales, which Chipman acknowledged had not been very good when the team sold out its full supply of season tickets in minutes, then sold out its building for the better part of eight straight seasons.

“For 10 years, we weren’t a sales organization; we were a service organization, and I’m not sure we were that good of a service organization, to be honest with you,” Chipman told The Athletic.

Morrissey, for his part, was delighted by the experience.

“It couldn’t be any more, in my view, Canadian than that. An outdoor rink across three front yards with trees in the middle of the ice,” Morrissey said.

“I think that’s something I’ve always valued about the Jets organization and Mr. Chipman is their commitment to the city of Winnipeg, their love for the city of Winnipeg. I think that’s just another example of him trying to get players in a situation to interact with some of the great fans and be a part of this community.”

True North’s investment in the Jets is heavy and ongoing: Winnipeg bought out former captain Blake Wheeler this offseason, prior to signing trade acquisition Gabriel Vilardi in July and longtime stars Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck to matching seven-year, $8.5 million AAV extensions in October. Winnipeg re-signed Nino Niederreiter to a two-year contract shortly thereafter and earlier this month acquired Sean Monahan from Montreal to bolster its playoff push. True North also unveiled $13 million in renovations to Canada Life Centre in September.

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(Photo of Gary Bettman: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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