WINNIPEG - Back in 1996, there were many who believed that Winnipeg would never be able to afford an NHL franchise again.
Yes, they have happily been proven wrong.
"It's incredible for me that the whole Winnipeg Jets thing has taken on a life of its own," said Mark Olson, who organized a Save the Jets social as part of that doomed rally. "And remember, when they left, their payroll was about $16-$17 million (annually). So, I never thought they'd come back just due to the economics of it."
Those economics were addressed with a new collective bargaining agreement, revenue sharing and a new hockey arena (MTS Centre). Mark Chipman and David Thompson played the right cards and finally landed an NHL franchise to bring back here. The rest has been history-making.
The Jets' success has had other small-market cities not only take notice but immediately start plans to either build an NHL-stye arena — Quebec City and Markham, Ontario — or start forming their bids — Saskatoon.
"Winnipeg changed the modelling for the NHL," Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff told the Saskatoon Star Phoenix (the Jets politely declined a Sun request for an interview on this topic).
"It's a massive success story on so many different levels," said Olson, a former Brier champion who runs the Landstar Development Corporation. "It's a great role model for Quebec City."
And for everyone else who wants to join the NHL parade.
"Any time a Canadian team is successful in Canada, it's a positive for Canada," Saskatoon Mayor Donald Atchison said. "Saskatoon does have a facility that could be used for the NHL — it has (slightly) more seats than the MTS Centre.
"I'm thrilled that the Jets are so successful. It's gold. You don't realize what you've got till it's gone. Seriously ... And people are starving for NHL hockey here."
Atchison knows the population in Saskatoon's general area of about 330,000 hurts the cause, but he assures that people from all over Saskatchewan would drive a long way to Saskatoon for NHL games. In fact, people from Saskatoon and Regina own Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames season tickets, he said.
"There are even some who have tickets to Edmonton Oilers games, and those are long drives," Atchison said.
Markham, which has a population of about 225,000, recently approved the building of a $325 million arena that will seat 19,000-20,000.
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume did not return messages or respond to emails but you can bet that his town would respond the same way as Winnipeg should the NHL return there, too.
"I was in New York when the Jets played there," said local entrepreneur David Asper. "I happened to go to a Devils game and the whole upper end on one side was comprised of fans wearing Nordiques jerseys. I agree they've kept the flame alive in Quebec City and would clearly support it with the new arena they're building there.
"But, once you get past Quebec, I have trouble identifying small-market cities where it would work."
What the Jets had working for them was the fact that people bought season tickets in syndicates.
"So, instead of 15,000 season ticket holders, you actually have about 50,000 and that's good for the long term," Asper said. "The Winnipeg model is sustainable. The Jets also benefit from owning their own rink. And there were a number of concessions given to them — like $7 million from the VLTs."
Asper figures a franchise owner needs $90 million to operate — about $50 million for cap expenses and another $40 million for non-hockey costs. Should the Canadian dollar weaken, that could hurt Saskatoon, he said.
But one of the most surprising aspects to the Jets' success is that there are about the same number of big businesses in Winnipeg now that there were in 1996.
"There are not a lot of big businesses supporting the Jets, but there are a lot of smaller businesses supporting the team," Olson said. "That makes it more diversified. It's a better base than being dependent on one or two major corporations."
Whether other small markets can follow role model will depend on the characteristics of each area wanting to join the Jets in The Show.