Winnipeg entrepreneur Mark Chipman is doing his best to bring NHL hockey back to Manitoba.
For all his hard work, the Manitoba executive may end up being nothing more than a pawn in the National Hockey League's attempt to keep the Phoenix Coyotes afloat in Arizona.
Chipman co-owns the 15,000 seat MTS Centre in Winnipeg with Toronto-based billionaire David Thomson, through a company called True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd. Chipman, whose family owns auto dealerships and co-owned a leasing business, recently sold for $130-million, has long sought to bring NHL hockey back to Winnipeg - the Jets departed for Arizona in 1996. The team now plays in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, and is owned by the NHL after filing for bankruptcy last year.
There were media reports out of Arizona yesterday that Chipman was close to realizing this dream, with Thomson backstopping a deal to bring the Coyotes to Manitoba if an agreement to keep the team in Glendale fell apart. However, True North executives said the story was false. "There is no understanding between True North and the NHL with regard to the Phoenix Coyotes, or any other franchise," said Scott Brown, spokesman for True North, adding "it's no secret we have regular conversations with NHL officials, including Gary Bettman. And we have made no secret of our interest in a NHL franchise, should the right opportunity arise."
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly also said the league has no agreement to move the Coyotes to Winnipeg "or to any other city for that matter." Daly also said there have been discussions with Chipman and Thomson about their interest in buying an NHL franchise for Winnipeg but nothing concrete has developed.
"Our focus continues to be on completing a transaction with local ownership that is committed to operating the team in Glendale," Daly said in a statement released last night.
"Based on the communications and information we are receiving on a regular basis, the stakeholders involved continue to express a high level of confidence that that can be successfully achieved. We will not focus on completing arrangements for one or more alternative option[s]until such time as it may become necessary.
"With respect to Winnipeg and Messrs. Chipman and Thomson, we have had ongoing discussions over time regarding their potential interest in owning an NHL franchise [as we have had with a number of other individuals and cities around North America]and potentially bringing an NHL franchise back to Winnipeg. It remains an intriguing possibility and one we would consider given appropriate circumstances, but there is nothing new to report on that front at this time."
Ownership of the Coyotes is still up for grabs, and it may be known by Thursday if Chicago-based real estate developer Jerry Reinsdorf is going to buy the team. That is the unofficial deadline set by Glendale city officials for a lease to be settled between either Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox who has real-estate interests in Glendale, or the Ice Edge Holdings group of Canadian and American businessmen. But the officials are willing to extend the deadline if negotiations are progressing.
Lease negotiations with the city have been handled by the NHL in recent weeks and sources told the Glendale Star at this point it looks like Reinsdorf is the more likely candidate to reach a lease agreement. It is thought that Reinsdorf is asking for a special tax district to be created around Jobing.com Arena to raise revenue for the team and he may have demanded an escape clause to allow the team to be moved if revenue and ticket-sales targets are not met. Speculation is also building that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been talking to True North about moving the team to Winnipeg if the sale to either Reinsdorf or Ice Edge falls through. But several sources said while there has been communication between Bettman and Chipman and their associates, there is nothing that would suggest the possibility of moving the Coyotes back to their original NHL city is anything more than a way to put pressure on Glendale to agree to a new lease. If Chipman can't bring the Coyotes back to Winnipeg, he's expected to discreetly but insistently push for another team, sources say, despite the hostility that greeted Research In Motion co-CEO Jim Balisillie's attempts to move a franchise to Canada.
"Chipman is attempting to do everything Balsillie didn't do, by working with Bettman and the league. He's only talked to owners of troubled franchises with the Bettman's blessing," said one source in Winnipeg.
The campaign to bring a team to Winnipeg is led by Chipman, not Thomson, said True North's Brown. Chipman is the operating partner in True North, while Thomson is involved through Winnipeg real estate holdings at his private company, Osmington Inc. (The Thomson family holds a controlling interest in The Globe and Mail's parent company, CTVglobemedia.) Sources close to Thomson say while the executive is open to the idea of NHL ownership at True North, his backing is conditional on the terms of a purchase.
Chipman's quiet diplomacy has yet to sway the NHL commissioner. As one source close to the league said, "Bettman is far from convinced that moving teams to mid-market Canadian cities solves the league's economic woes."
Winnipeg's arena is one of the busiest facilities in Canada, playing home to the American Hockey League Manitoba Moose, along with concerts. However, it is smaller than most NHL facilities, which is seen as a potential problem in a league that relies on ticket sales for much of its revenues. One source in Winnipeg said Chipman's response to this concern is, "Would you rather play to a sold-out 15,000 seat venue, or a half full arena that seats 19,000?"
Winnipeg was home to hockey's Jets from 1972 to 1996, first in the now-defunct WHA, then in the NHL. After relocating to Arizona, the team lost an estimated $300-million before filing for bankruptcy last year.
With files from David Shoalts
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