It will be Ducks versus Ducks tonight at Winnipeg Arena: The Mighty vs. The Lame.
The Jets' final season in Winnipeg is being called a six-month funeral after a last-gasp effort by fans to save the team resulted only in a stay of the move's execution. Official word that the team will play in Minneapolis next season is expected soon.
This makes for an awkward season--especially since the Jets' logo was retired at the final home game last season, when a banner was raised ceremoniously into the rafters. It was quietly taken down again before this season began, only to be put in storage to be raised again at its end.
"It's going to be a tough year in Winnipeg, for the fans and the team from a financial point of view," said Mighty Duck Coach Ron Wilson, whose team opens its third season tonight against the Jets. "Historically teams have struggled when they know they're moving or there's uncertainty."
Fewer than 5,000 season tickets have been sold at the outmoded, 40-year-old Winnipeg Arena, and observers expect attendance in the second half of the season to hinge on whether the Jets are in contention.
Nevertheless, a surprisingly large crowd of 13,914--about 1,500 short of a sellout--turned out for the first game of the Jets' season Saturday, a 7-5 victory over Dallas. Many of them apparently were there to boo Keith Tkachuk, the outstanding young forward who held out for almost the entire exhibition season before signing a five-year, $17-million contract prompted by the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks had signed Tkachuk to a free-agent offer sheet. The Jets matched the offer, then stripped him of the team captaincy, a move that observers in other cities found vindictive, but which some here supported.
"It's the principle of the thing," fan Dale Harris told the Winnipeg Free Press. "He gets $6 million to play this year and everybody says Winnipeg can't afford hockey anymore. It's all such a crock. I'm just mad because Tkachuk gets rich and we lose hockey."
Said center Alexei Zhamnov, who led the team with 65 points in 48 games last season: "We're all aware of how hard it's going to be, but we will try, for sure, to play hard. There aren't any players I know who don't want to play here. We will do our best."