WINNIPEG, Manitoba – The honeymoon is over for the Winnipeg Jets and their fans.
Tickets, once hard to come by, are now readily available. Those who do attend have booed their 16-18-5 team for inconsistent play that has the club sitting near the bottom of its new, tough Central Division.
Armchair general managers call for roster changes to the transplanted ex-Atlanta Thrashers team, while well-liked coach Claude Noel has had his job security questioned.
Players are fed up, too.
“It’s what you do out on the ice. You can blow smoke as much as you want in the media,” right-winger Blake Wheeler told reporters after the Jets lost a sixth straight game at home Dec. 14.
“We’ve been blowing smoke for three years – everyone, myself. Everyone that’s stood in front of a microphone for the last three years, we’ve said the same (expletive).”
When the Jets were resurrected in 2011, fans enthusiastically embraced the return of the NHL after a 15-year absence.
Thirteen thousand season tickets with a minimum three-year commitment were snapped up, and unlucky fans paid $50 to join a wait list.
The team was loudly cheered by 15,000 grateful admirers at home games and even received a standing ovation when the inaugural season ended with an overtime loss and no playoff berth.
After last season’s NHL lockout ended, fans were just happy to head back to the rink, and their adoration continued despite another campaign without postseason action.
But in this third season, cracks are starting to show.
When the home winless streak finally ended with a 5-2 victory over Florida Dec. 20, there was relief, but no fist pumping as the team headed out on the road for what wound up as losses to Vancouver and Edmonton before a three-day Christmas holiday.
Before boarding the plane for the road trip, Wheeler was asked if he senses the marriage with fans is hitting rocky times.
“I think the expectations have risen every year,” he said.
“We took a step last year and we just missed the playoffs. I think a lot of us felt we were a playoff team. And now, I think this is the best group we’ve had since we’ve been here, so I think the expectations have risen pretty linearly since we’ve been here.”
“(The scrutiny) comes with the territory. It’s a market that cares about the product on the ice, and they’re very passionate. They’re very enthusiastic when you’re winning and very enthusiastic when you’re losing – it’s just a different kind.”
Defenseman Zach Bogosian got a different view of fans when he recently missed 15 games with a groin injury. Did he feel the difference while sitting in the press box?
“It’s a touchy subject,” Bogosian said. “They’re usually pretty loud, but sometimes if the team is not playing as well as we should, some people get unhappy.”
Noel has known for a while that fans’ expectations are growing.
“After the first year, we had that sense that they would like more performance and the honeymoon is over,” he said. “We don’t sit here and take our fan base for granted. They expect us to work, and they should, and perform.”