On Saturday April 15,
1995, Hockey Night in Canada host Ron Maclean
invited Winnipeg Free Press sports columnist
Scott Taylor to be his guest during the second intermission. That
night, fans in Western Canada and Ontario watched as the Toronto
Maple Leafs battled the Jets in Winnipeg. The score was 2 to 1
for the Jets by the end of the second period. But the action
Maclean wanted Taylor to comment on was not taking place on the
ice. Rather, he wanted the columnist to talk about the game that
Jets owner Barry Shenkarow, who had been threatening yet again to
move his money-losing team out of the city, was playing with a
local business group called Manitoba Entertainment Complex (MEC),
which was negotiating to buy him out. (The asking price: $110
million.) And that wasn't the only game going on: the business
types behind MEC said they couldn't close the deal unless the
province of Manitoba coughed up $37 million toward the
construction of a new arena. (Both the federal and municipal
governments had also been asked for $37 million each.) Ten days
before the provincial election, the future of the Jets had become
a hot voting issue.
"I said that the
Liberals were not prepared to take a position on the issue yet;
that the NDP were opposed," recalls Taylor of what he told
Maclean. "And that the Tories would put $10 million into a new
arena." After the Tories, under leader Gary Filmon, won
re-election, Taylor was accused by those who opposed the
provincial handout of using national television to pressure Jets?
fans into voting Progressive Conservative. Taylor now scoffs at
the charge. "Come on, to say that no one wanted it, but then
voted for Filmon anyway because of me, that's just bitter and
The reason critics came to credit
Taylor with so much power was that the Winnipeg media treated the
Jets not as a news story but as a cause. What's more, Jim Silver,
a member of Thin Ice, the group opposed to using public funds for
a new arena, believes that his group was marginalized by the
media, and that journalists stepped into the spotlight and
stopped acting like reporters.
weeks after Taylor appeared on Hockey Night in Canada, disaster
struck the group wanting to keep the Jets in Winnipeg. While the
city and provincial governments each coughed up their $37
million, the federal government was noncommittal. In addition,
the NHL suddenly decided to limit the MEC's use of the franchise
Shenkarow also got body
checked by the NHL. He was told the league would charge him an
onerous fee of at least $15 million if new owners attempted to
move the team out of Winnipeg. Shenkarow, who would now have a
tougher time selling to anybody but a local group, was frustrated
and said: "I'm devastated. To me, this was out of left field.
It's a tremendous shock." The MEC responded by saying it had been
"ambushed." Even some members of he media called the restrictions
"deal-killing." But not Taylor. He, together with colleagues at
the Free Press and local radio station CJOB,
thought the deal to keep the Jets in town need not die - which
gave hope to the thousands of fans who wanted to save the Jets.
Around the time
of the NHL demands and the iffy response from the feds, Vic
Grant, host of a nightly two-hour sports phone-in show on radio
station CJOB, walked into his office. In his voice mail were
messages from dozens of concerned hockey fans. Every caller
wanted to donate money to keep the Jets in Winnipeg. "I had
people phoning me up, saying, 'I'll give you $1,000. I'll give
you $5,000. I'll give you a $10,000 cheque right now,'" he says.
Sure enough, they backed up their promises with paper: in a few
days, Grant had collected $50,000. And he wasn't the only one at
the station receiving calls and letters. "Over a period of
several weeks, we had listeners calling our talk shows to make
donations," says program manager Ted Farr. "The staff, in
general, supported it."
CJOB was a natural
place for fans to turn, Since 1991, the news-and-talk format
station has been the Voice of the Jets. "Hockey [broadcasts]
bring people to the station," explains Farr. "We compete for
listeners, and there is no denying that the Jets are an important
tool for us." So it was no surprise when the station decided to
spearhead a public fanfest. CJOB helped promote special Jets
donation accounts at major banks, and set up an information line
at the station in May.
The movement gained
momentum on Friday, May 12, when Shenkarow announced that MEC had
until noon on Thursday, May 18, to raise a down payment of $60
million. So MEC turned to the public for money, although there
was no real indication as to how much the business group wanted.
CJOB announced that, for the next four days, the station would
devote all its air time to fund-raising. It called the campaign
Winnipeg Free Press, a save the Jets campaign
was also in full swing. Thin Ice's Silver insists that the
paper's coverage was driven by Taylor, who has covered the Jets
for 15 years. "He travels around the continent with the Jets,
which he particularly enjoys," says Silver, and "has frequent
radio commentary [on Winnipeg's CITI-FM] on them." But Taylor was
hardly alone in writing about the campaign. Each day during
Operation Grassroots, the paper set aside several pages for
pro-Jets stories. One front-page feature predicted that without
the Jets, people in their 20s would desert the city and that
Winnipeg would soon become the "coldest retirement community in
the world." In other stories: Free Press
editors decided it was news when Jets general manager John
Paddock declared the quality of life in Winnipeg would go down
without a team; when one family rolled pennies for the Jets; and
when an eight-year-old boy cried himself to sleep during a CJOB
game broadcast. "Rescue Effort Top Gear," was a typical headline.
The Winnipeg Sun also jumped on the
bandwagon and ran a story about a family that cashed in an RRSP
to give to the campaign.
Both CJOB and the
Winnipeg Free Press felt they occupied the
high moral ground. "Many people think that we make a fortune from
the Jets," says CJOB?s Farr. "That's not true. We had many
reasons for taking on the role that we did, but money was not one
of them." He compares supporting a multi-million-dollar sports
organization's bid for public funds to doing charity work. "If it
had been a hospital that was closing in Winnipeg, we would have
done the same thing," says Farr. "We are a mirror to the
But some in the community saw a
mirror reflecting only a partial image. "We found it difficult to
get the media to cover what we were doing and saying. When we
were covered, we were buried in the story" recalls Thin Ice's
Silver. "The coverage [was] ... 100 to one for the proponent." In
fact, the Free Press even interviewed a sports
psychologist, Cal Botterill, who somehow found a way to put a
positive spin on Thin Ice's legitimate economic concerns about
spending public money on a new arena at a time when Winnipeg was
recognized nationally as the child poverty capital of Canada. "We
need [Thin Ice's] vibrancy," said the sports psychologist
soothingly. "They will make sure the arena is built with a bigger
picture in mind. Thin Ice has sensitized us; it would be almost
impossible to proceed without them. They will still be there when
the arena is built, and will be the ones talking about expanding
efforts such as Goals for Kids, the Jets' [charity] fund-raiser."
At CJOB, callers who opposed Operation
Grassroots were often ridiculed and cut off. During one show an
elderly man phoned in to morning-man Peter Warren. He was worried
about a rise in taxes because of the decision of provincial and
municipal governments to help fund a new arena. The DJ's
response: "Shut the hell up." The next caller was a young man who
said the city would be better off if the old guy just stopped
taking his heart pills. Warren thanked the man for supporting his
position. (Warren refused to comment for this article, stating he
had "been castigated by the media" and had "a lot of shit dumped
For Silver, taking an unpopular
position had more serious consequences. "At the height of the
frenzy, the huge crowds [at the rallies] were kind of scary. They
were mostly young men who did not care about the arguments. They
could have cared less about our position. The police were worried
that one rally would get out of hand, that I would have crowds of
young men coming to my house afterwards. I personally had police
protection for a day," he says. Two members of Thin Ice even
received death threats.
No wonder Silver had
such contempt for what he sees as a media-created frenzy. "I'll
admit that there were times when we may have lost our
perspective," says John Douglas, a Free Press business reporter
who also covered Operation Grassroots. The interview with Cal
Botterill, he adds, "was badly done....We lost perspective. We
put a positive spin on a story when it should have been
But Douglas doesn't buy Thin
lce's accusation that the media created a public frenzy: "I was
in Ottawa as the Free Press correspondent during the Meech Lake
and the Charlottetown accords. And if the media couldn't get the
public to support issues of that magnitude, what makes them think
that the media can do it for a hockey team?"
The day before Shenkarow issued his ultimatum, at least one
member of MEC - one very familiar with journalism standards -
publicly protested the media hype. For days, journalists had been
excited when they heard that CanWest Global chairman and CEO,
Israel (Izzy) Asper, had joined MEC. He would be the saviour,
they reported, and the team was just a signature away from
staying. But on May 13, Asper said the media had jumped the gun.
"It's quite dangerous and damaging to all concerned to fan false
hopes and toy with people's emotions, not to mention their
political or private reputations."
didn't stop MEC, however, from using the hype to its advantage.
MEC members were readily available to the media for that week,
and often downplayed any concerns about the deal, or how
negotiations were going with Shenkarow. What's more, MEC fully
endorsed any rally that the media organized?the biggest of which
took place on Tuesday, May 16, midway through the four-day
Operation Grassroots campaign. More than 35,000 people gathered
for a public fund-raising event at The Forks, where the
Assiniboine River meets the Red River and where Tom Jackson, Fred
Penner and CJOB celebrities encouraged them to donate money.
Earlier that day, organizers publicly announced they had
commitments of $62 million from the business community. At the
rally - the biggest in Winnipeg's history since WWII - both the
business consortium and the media seemed to be reading from the
same press release. However, it was the last time they would be
reading from the same page.
Two days later, on the night of Shenkarow's
deadline, Operation Grassroots collapsed. Ottawa announced that
it would give only $20 million - not the requested $37 million.
And MEC stated it was still $28 million short of its goal,
despite raising $62 million from the businesses and $13 million
from the public. But at the same time that some members of the
media were still insisting that the deal was doable, Shenkarow
said he was selling the team to Minnesota.
All summer long, MEC tried to cobble together a counteroffer. But
after such a humiliating failure in May, the group decided to
keep all further negotiations quiet. During June and July, only
tiny bits of information were allowed to leak out.
On June 2, Taylor wrote that the public should have
doubts that a new deal could be reached with MEC. In mid-June,
the Free Press and CJOB hosts warned the city
that the Jets would almost certainly go to Minnesota since MEC's
latest plan for buying the team called for yet another $20
million to be raised, a favourable tax ruling, and charitable
status for a fund that would cover any future financial losses.
Yet despite their more critical stance, the
Winnipeg media missed a major part of the story. Shenkarow wanted
to remain Jets president; MEC wanted him out. This caused a major
breakdown in negotiations. No one reported this development,
although there were rumours about fighting among MEC members. On
July 19, Asper announced that he would no longer financially back
the deal and was pulling out of MEC.
(reorganized and relabelled Spirit of Manitoba) continued on
regardless and officially launched the $20 million fund-raising
campaign that Taylor and CJOB had warned about in June. This one
consisted of commercials, infomercials and a song, but failed
miserably. What's more, the business consortium failed to land a
single large donation or investment. Throughout the second
campaign the media had regained their perspective: the
fund-raising campaign was treated as news; CJOB didn't cover the
issue 24 hours a day; and the Winnipeg Free
Press kept Spirit of Manitoba stories to a minimum. In
fact, the Free Press even reported that the
fans had been tapped out and that the reconstructed group
couldn?t expect the fans to take it seriously. On August 14, the
business group admitted defeat.
Grant's main regret is that the boosterism didn't work - not that
what he did crossed the line into hype. "I didn't do enough,"
says Grant "I sat back and after the success of the Grassroots
campaign and the emotion and it being put into the hands of the
MEC and the Spirit of Manitoba - they fumbled it. I should have
realized they fumbled it and started making people aware that
these guys had their own personal agendas."
Scott Taylor has more regrets about his approach to reporting the
Jets sale. "Looking back," he says, "I would have done more on
the group looking to put the deal together. When the yelling took
place [between the MEC and Shenkarow], the media should have
realized that was not the right way to [put the deal together]."
Still, he defends the boosterism. "CJOB has taken a lot of flak
for supporting a campaign that couldn't be saved, but it was
something the community wanted.
members don?t want to talk about the media's role. "We are just
glad to get out of it and get on with our lives," says a
spokesperson at InterGroup Consultants, an MEC partner. "All we
can say was that the media response was very varied, but most of
[what was reported] was fiction."
reported the Jets' mediocre last season in Winnipeg and that the
team had finally been sold - not to Minnesota but to Phoenix -
disillusioned journalists privately vowed that in the future, the
business dealings of all pro sports teams would be more closely
scrutinized. Now, with the Canadian Football League season set to
start in June, they have another chance. At a CFL news conference
in January, it was announced that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers are
$4.5 million in debt - that shaky league's most financially
troubled team. What does this mean to the media? Stay tuned. CJOB
is also the Voice of the Bombers.