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(SHAUN BEST/Reuters)
(SHAUN BEST/Reuters)

Roy MacGregor

The man who revived the Jets by killing them Add to ...

When all things come to pass as predicted in Winnipeg, there should be some credit given to the Bogeyman.

There was a time when they egged the houses of Jim Silver and his little group of Winnipeg naysayers, a time when there were death threats uttered and even a couple of times when police protection was required.

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All because Jim Silver kept saying, "No!"

He was an easy target to paint as the villain. He might today have a beard as white as Santa Claus, but back then, in 1995, he was the dream destroyer of little kids who broke open their piggy banks, of pensioners who sent in their cheques and even of parents who were offering what they'd put away for their children's education - all in a futile effort to keep the Winnipeg Jets in town.

Silver, a soft-spoken University of Winnipeg professor whose expertise is in inner-city poverty, did not hate the Jets. Truth is, he was a hockey fan all along who delights in taking his grandchildren to watch the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.

But he was the leader and spokesperson for Thin Ice, a small, leftish group of activists, mostly academics, who decided to speak with their heads while everyone else in town was going purely with their hearts.

It was folly, Thin Ice argued, for the provincial government and city government to agree, as they had, to cover the losses of the Jets. What the club needed, supporters argued, was a new, state-of-the-art arena - one built, of course, with even more of the taxpayers' money.

The club was leaking money - $7-million the previous season, $20-million since the two levels of government had come aboard - and the owner was keen to sell to interests in Minnesota, who were keen to buy.

It seemed a done deal until a popular open-line show pumped up a Save the Jets campaign that took off beyond any expectations. Within days, ordinary citizens, many of them children, had pledged $13.5-million. A rally at The Forks brought 35,000 fans out. There were plans for a new $111-million rink at the site and three levels of government - city, provincial and federal - seemed surprisingly willing to pay for it.

Thin Ice said "No." If so many millions of taxpayers' dollars were so easy to come by, they argued, there were better uses than saving NHL hockey - such as addressing the worst inner-city poverty situation in the country.

Silver and his little group did their homework. Two Brandon University economists tore apart a study that the Jets contributed $47-million a year to the Winnipeg economy, arguing that "the money would be spent anyway." Silver became the eloquent spokesperson against the plan, though he rarely said what many in the city wished to hear.

In the end, the Save the Jets campaign crashed. The Jets were off to Arizona just as the struggling Nordiques had left Quebec for Denver. Within a few years, the situation had worsened to a point where soaring payrolls and a sagging dollar had several Canadian franchises against the wall. There was no public sympathy for bailing out teams with tax money, as the federal government quickly discovered when it offered and then backtracked within days. Had the original Jets plan gone through, its fate would have been similar to the bankrupt Ottawa Senators - with Manitoba taxpayers the No. 1 victim.

It is a profoundly different time now in Manitoba. The province and city are in better shape, the Canadian dollar has soared and there is deep-pocket prospective ownership if, indeed, the Atlanta Thrashers are relocated to Winnipeg.

"We won the first battle," Silver says. "And I think we may have been the first such group to defeat the assembled corporate community over a pro sports issue."

He is mildly amused to watch a similar battle being waged in Arizona. There, the argument against government funding comes from the Goldwater Institute, a right-wing organization; in Winnipeg, the arguments came from the left. But the point remains the same: Governments shouldn't prop up sports clubs. "It's quite ironic," Silver says.

In words that may surprise some Manitobans, Silver now says that Thin Ice is what "made possible" the current situation where Winnipeg is considered a serious contender for an NHL franchise.

Such a statement is not as far-fetched as it seems. By shutting down the plans to save the team, the group surely saved a far greater financial disaster to come. The debates of the mid-1990s also brought a young Mark Chipman into the fray, even if he was on "the other side." Chipman was an impressive voice then and, today, as head of True North Sports and Entertainment, he and wealthy partner David Thomson stand to take over any potential NHL franchise. True North also built the MTS Centre on Portage Avenue, a quality rink that enjoys some government concessions but is a far cry from the tax-funded facility that was to go up at the nearby Forks.

"We have a more reasonable ownership group and a more fiscally responsible provincial government," Silver says. "They're not prepared to sell the farm. And maybe something can work. If so, great."

A great deal has changed since they were breaking open piggy banks and throwing eggs in Winnipeg. Much has been forgotten of that 15-year-old fight, but both sides might even agree today that it was a battle that had to be waged.

"Fans come up to me," says Jim Silver, "and say, 'Boy, I hated you at the time, but, you know, years later I think you were right.'"

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