Efforts to Save the Jets
During the spring of 1995, the entire city of Winnipeg and province of Manitoba united as one for the purpose of saving the Jets and keeping them in Winnipeg.
Plans were being drawn up for the funding and construction of a new arena in downtown Winnipeg. Click here to see the Manitoba Entertainment Complex Inc. Project Update, as it stood in April 1995. Read about the Blue Ribbon Campaign to save the Jets in May 1995.
Within a week after the "Funeral" held on May 6, 1995, and perhaps less than a day before the team was to be sold to a Minneapolis-based group, a final effort was launched, persuading Jets president Barry Shenkarow to postpone the pending sale to await the outcome of this new group's effort. The original MEC group was bolstered by cash commitments from Ross Robinson, president of B.A. Robinson & Co.; Mark Chipman, president of Birchwood Automotive Group Ltd.; Phil Kives, president of K-Tel International Ltd.; and CanWest Global TV president Israel Asper. Asper's commitment would be a naming rights deal to a potential new arena for the Jets, which would be called the CanWest Coliseum. Also involved in the deal were Albert Cohen, Gerald Gray, Investors Group and the Richardson Foundation.
The task at hand became to raise $110 million to cover the purchase of the Jets and future losses that the team would incur. A rally at the Government Forks was scheduled for May 16, 1995, which drew over 35,000 people. A hastily-arranged fund-raising social at $100 per ticket was scheduled for the Convention Center on May 17, 1995 (click here to see the ads promoting these events). Donations to the Grassroots Endowment Fund starting pouring in starting on May 15, 1995, a fund that would ultimately exceed $13 million. Contributions from the corporate community right down to childrens' allowances fueled this fund. Other rallies and events were held, some at Portage and Main, the site where Bobby Hull signed the contract that got the Jets and the WHA off the ground.
This new group became known as the Spirit of Manitoba, which was to purchase the Jets from Barry Shenkarow's group, Jets Hockey Ventures. Click here to read the Spirit of Manitoba Partnership Offering, from July 1995, where the public was offered the opportunity to purchase limited partnership units in this venture. The group was to buy 42% of the shares of the team, held by Shenkarow and his partners, for $32 million and leave Shenkarow's group with a 22% share of the team. The Spirit group even offered to Shenkarow, foolishly, a seat on the board of directors, the governorship of the franchise, and a two-year consultant's fee to help a new person run the day-to-day operations. However, that was not enough control for Shenkarow, who wanted both the governorship and the presidency. Though Shenkarow would still have some role with the Jets, the Spirit group wanted to remove Shenkarow from the running the day-to-day operations, a move strongly opposed by the existing ownership. A tug-of-war ensued between the Spirit group and the existing owners, with Shenkarow's presidency being the primary issue at hand. Both sides threatened to walk away from the deal numerous times, as Shenkarow held out for his own interests. As Shenkarow's bargaining position became weakened by threats from the City to back out of the Joint Operating Agreement which funded the Jets losses if Shenkarow didn't agree to the deal put forth by the Spirit group, Shenkarow caved in and agreed to a $32 million purchase price for 64% of the franchise, completely removing Shenkarow's group from the picture. The Spirit group would also assume $8 million in existing debt, plus assuming responsibility for an expected $15 million loss in the 1995-1996 season.
The efforts were finally abandoned when it became clear, once and for all, that the Spirit group was unable to raise enough money to purchase the team (listen to audio of John Loewen's August, 1995 announcement here). It was a bittersweet time in Winnipeg, and those of us caught up in all the excitement will never forget the emotional roller coaster ride. The only thing these efforts ultimately did was buy us one final season of Jets hockey, and resulted in the franchise being relocated to Phoenix instead of Minneapolis, where the team was headed until these last-minute efforts were launched.
As Gary Filmon, then Premier over Manitoba, said in the spring of 1995, "It has been said many times that we never fully appreciate something until it is lost to us. And I believe that many of us didn't realize how much the Winnipeg Jets meant to us emotionally until the last short while. The loss of the Jets struck at the very heart of our community and our pride. When Manitobans were told that it was over ... to give it up ... they wouldn't let it go. Manitobans would not accept that this would be the end of an era."