The Winnipeg Jets have their share of struggles when it comes to attracting free agents. The city is one of the NHL’s smallest markets, remote compared to other options and much colder in the winter than the vast majority of alternatives.
It really isn’t a city that needs a reputation for ripping the players willing to play there, yet it seems obvious that such a reputation has developed.
Here’s what Jets forward Bryan Little told the Winnipeg Sun’s Kirk Penton on Wednesday:
We were joking around before that only in Winnipeg someone would say negative comments about the birth of a child. Then I heard someone actually did. I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not.
Little’s comments are in reference to a decision made by team captain Andrew Ladd to miss Monday’s game against the Dallas Stars to stay home with his wife, who gave birth to a baby girl, and the criticism he faced as a result of that choice.
Local radio host Troy Westwood was the most prominent voice criticizing Ladd for missing the game (h/t The Huffington Post):
Baby born last night, healthy, no complications I assume. You as captain don't make game tonight in Dal with playoffs hanging by a thread?— Troy Westwood (@TroyWestwood) March 24, 2014
Westwood faced a barrage of criticism after tweeting those comments, some from people who felt he was saying that Ladd shouldn’t have been there for the birth of his daughter.
In fairness to Westwood, that wasn’t what he was saying, as he made clear in a follow-up tweet:
@CoryTycoles16 Cory, the baby was born last night. Get on a plane this morning, take a 3 hour flight, the team needs you.— Troy Westwood (@TroyWestwood) March 24, 2014
Ladd actually wasn’t there for his daughter’s birth, but made his position clear in Penton's article:
It was an easy decision for me. I got home just before 12 on Sunday night, and the baby was actually born before I got there.
It was a quick labour, and I felt it was right to stay and make sure my wife was OK and my daughter was OK. We don’t have any family in town, so I wanted to be there to support them.
Also perhaps playing into Ladd’s decision was an honest assessment of the Jets’ playoff hopes. Before the game against Dallas, the team was six points back of the Phoenix Coyotes for the final playoff spot in the West, with Phoenix having a game in hand.
10 points amounts to a massive gap and Winnipeg was in all likelihood already done.
Ladd’s decision was an understandable one. With his team all but officially finished, he decided to give his wife some support during a difficult time.
Westwood’s criticism is also understandable. As a former player in the Canadian Football League, he understands the sacrifices that professional sports demand of players.
Realistically, though, the debate here goes well beyond this specific instance and highlights the perception of the city among the players who play there.
Little says that the team was joking "only in Winnipeg" before any comments were actually made. That speaks to a preexisting belief among the players that the market is unusually hostile to NHLers. Westwood’s comments—which I don’t agree with, but also don’t see as beyond the pale—feed into a belief that Little and at least some of his teammates already hold.
It’s a substantial challenge for the people managing the Jets. As a cold, remote, small market, one of the few things that differentiates Winnipeg in a positive way from other NHL cities is that there’s a fanatical devotion to hockey there.
Based on Little’s comments, however, that’s more of a negative than a positive right now.