When the lockout hit the National Hockey League this past fall, fans in the major cities in Western Canada all had junior hockey options. The Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings are all wildly successful programs. Even if the Giants didn't compete on the ice this past season, they have always been a solid draw at the old Pacific Coliseum and stand as an alternative hockey product for fans who simply can't afford expensive tickets to Vancouver Canucks games.
But there isn't a team in Winnipeg. When the city of Winnipeg got an NHL team in the fall of 2011, it lost the AHL's Manitoba Moose, who moved to St. John's. Oddly-enough, Winnipeg didn't have a WHL team in the years leading up to the return of the Jets.
Of course, WHL-crazed fans can always travel down the road to Brandon. The Wheat Kings home arena is about a two hour drive from downtown Winnipeg, and the Wheaties play the odd exhibition game in Winnipeg and usually take residence in the MTS Centre when the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair takes over Westman Place. Last year the three first round games for the Wheat Kings in Winnipeg drew 3,578, 3,563 and 4,002 fans, which isn't too far removed from what the Wheat Kings averaged in 2012—4,143 fans, 14th in the league.
However, True North Sports & Entertainment, who own the Jets, may be in the exploratory stages of seeing if Winnipeg's own WHL team would be feasible. Winnipeg media blog ChrisD.ca has the details of an email sent out to the Winnipeg public last week with the TNSE lettermark.
As a current (or former) patron of the MTS Centre of Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club, True North Sports & Entertainment Limited would like to invite you to participate in a brief survey about your perceptions of the Western Hockey League (WHL).
The survey should take approximately 5 minutes to complete.
Everyone who completes the survey will be entered to win one of three (3) pair of tickets [sic] to the Saturday, April 20th game vs. the New York Islanders.
Even with the Jets being somewhat of an on-ice disaster this season, they're still a tough ticket. Jets fans are known for being some of the loudest in the NHL, thanks in part to the smaller, cozier MTS Centre compared to some of the giant corporadomes built in places such as Vancouver and Toronto.
Of course, the logistics of another WHL team in the Eastern Conference hardly make sense right now without some form of re-alignment. There are 10 teams in the WHL in the Pacific time zone, each of which makes up the Western Conference. The 12 teams in Cranbrook, B.C., and East make up the Eastern Conference.
The unbalanced conferences this year hit hard as both Lethbridge, Moose Jaw and Regina all missed the playoffs despite having more points than the 7 and 8 seeds in the Western Conference, Seattle and Everett.
That said, maybe with another team in the East, the WHL could adopt a true "Central Division."
But we'll jump off that bridge when we get to it. I think there is a valid reason to ask why Winnipeg doesn't have a WHL team in the first place, and certainly now that the AHL has left town, there is probably a market for a more affordable hockey ticket, one that could provide the Wheat Kings a natural rival.