With speculation mounting that the announcement of the Phoenix Coyotes' relocation is both inevitable and imminent, we asked our team of hockey writers if they think Winnipeg is now positioned to be a viable, long-term NHL market.
Of course it will work. One of the simplest historical interpretations of the National Hockey League in the modern era is that Wayne Gretzky caused the league to go insane. No Gretzky, no spike in casual/celebrity interest in the game in the U.S.A. - and no "southern footprint" along with expansion madness. Gretzky has been out of the game since 1999 and now, a dozen years later, the NHL is finally recovering from its bout of delusion. Hockey is a northern game. Hockey is a gate-driven game. Hockey is a television success where there is an appetite for the game.
All this works in Winnipeg's favour. Add in the healthy Canadian dollar, surely to stay high for a long, long time, and take into consideration the growth and economic well-being of Winnipeg - not to mention a serviceable new rink - and you have a situation where teams like the Phoenix Coyotes and Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers and who knows what else could actually have a chance at filling the stands with real tickets rather than giveaways that even then don't fill a rink.
Canadians used to shout "Go Jets Go!" Time now to yell "Come Jets Come!" It will work out just fine.
As an NHL landing place, Winnipeg comes with questions. Is it big enough? Rich enough? Viable enough with a slightly under-sized arena in its downtown core?
But here's the $165-million (US) question: where the heck else is the NHL going to plunk its Phoenix Coyotes? Kansas City has fallen off the list of possibilities. So that leaves, what, Houston, Portland, Seattle, Duluth, Minn.?
Three things make Winnipeg the best choice for the Coyotes, so long as the NHL wants to stay out of Southern Ontario. One, the city and its fans want the team. Two, there's likely to be sufficient local ownership to keep the team going, something that wasn't there the first time around with the Winnipeg Jets. Three, the Canadian dollar is once again a healthy marker, and while that can't always be counted on, it is a compelling factor for a troubled U.S. hockey team in need of a rescue.
As an NHL returnee, Winnipeg may have issues long-term, especially with its arena's seating capacity (less than 16,000). That could mean having to increase ticket prices to produce more revenue, a move that could alienate and squeeze out the common fan.
But with the Coyotes operating on limited time - and the Atlanta Thrashers already being linked to Quebec City - where else is the NHL going to go? It's either relocation or retraction. And if there's still money to come from somewhere, then it's like that old TV commercial said, "Goin' to Winnipeg."
Winnipeg is well-positioned now to survive and even succeed in the NHL, but much of its long-term viability will depend upon two factors that require some prescient crystal-ball gazing:
1. Will the Canadian dollar continue to hover at or near or even above par vis-a-vis its U.S. counterpart?
2. How will the collective bargaining agreement between owners and players look after 2012, when the current deal expires and a whole lot of new demands by both sides could fundamentally change the way the business of hockey is run?
Under the current CBA, Winnipeg would likely qualify for revenue sharing because it fits into the classic definition of a small-market team. The building is relatively undersized by NHL standards; and its local TV revenues would likely be no match for what they earn in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and elsewhere around the NHL. Even corporate sponsorship will be an issue, especially in the long term.