It was the strangest phone call of all the thousands that preceded the return of the Jets to Winnipeg.
It was a Thursday evening, May 19, and Mark and Patti Chipman were sitting at the head table at a special dinner held at the Manitoba Museum to honour outgoing Premier Gary Doer. Chipman had been asked to do the tribute and was thinking about what he might say when a man approached with his hand out.
Chipman didn’t understand. “What for?” he asked. Wasn’t it Doer’s night, not his?
“For getting the Thrashers.”
Chipman had no time to react. His BlackBerry “was instantly on fire.”
One text that all but melted the plastic was from Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL. What’s going on? an angry Bettman had typed from his seat at a Florida NHL game. What have you said?
“He was none too pleased,” Chipman says.
It was all supposed to be secret. True North Sports & Entertainment, the company Chipman headed up with the deep financial backing of David Thomson, had long been working to land an NHL club. The hope was to get back the Phoenix Coyotes, the team that left Winnipeg in 1996, but the scoop that had just hit The Globe and Mail’s website had True North landing the financially imperilled Atlanta Thrashers.
There was no time to respond. Chipman raced through the tribute and he and Patti fled for home to deal with this unexpected crisis. They took Main Street and when they came to the corner of Main and Portage they found the downtown blocked with fans who had gathered as the news spread.
Now the commissioner was on Chipman’s cell phone and he was livid.
Chipman answered by rolling down the window and holding out his phone, letting the hockey fans of Winnipeg speak for themselves.
Less than two weeks later, with the deal finally settled, matters had calmed to the point where a happy Bettman was betting that Winnipeg fans would purchase season’s tickets so quickly they would sell out in 48 hours. It took less than two minutes.
Pulling off such a coup has turned the shy, self-effacing Chipman – youngest son of a family financial dynasty built through car dealerships – into such a hero that if he were running for premier, there would be no need for that Oct. 4 vote. But why be premier when you are already king?
The 51-year-old Chipman was himself a middling hockey player but a far better football player, good enough to play on the University of North Dakota team and to dress for a single exhibition game with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. “They needed players for practice,” he says.
He graduated in law and briefly worked in the U.S. before returning to Winnipeg in the late 1980s to take up his expected role in the family businesses. He only became involved in hockey in the mid 1990s, when a group of business people came together in a futile effort to save the original Jets.
Chipman stayed with hockey, however, even after the Jets relocated to Phoenix. He believed that the only chance Winnipeg would have of landing another NHL team – however improbable – would be if they showed they could make a good go of it at the minor-league level.
“Nobody had any illusions,” he says. “We didn’t have any romantic notions of the team coming back. There was a reality that I had come to understand. We didn’t really seriously consider it a possibility until after the NHL’s [2004-05]work stoppage.”
True North had good success with the minor-league Manitoba Moose. They even built a new rink downtown – the $133.5-million MTS Centre – to replace the old, inadequate Winnipeg Arena that had been much of the reason for the club’s departure. The partnership with Thomson began here, when True North was able – despite considerable controversy – to build right downtown at the site of the historic Eaton’s landmark.
Chipman has always been said to have done everything “the right way.” He began his wooing of the NHL back in 2002 when he drove to Salt Lake City during the Olympic Winter Games and managed to meet with Bettman.
It took nine years and there was hardly a misstep. As NHL clubs began foundering in what is known as the “southern footprint,” Winnipeg increasingly became seen as a possible safe haven. The city had grown; the Canadian dollar was back at par; and Chipman and Thomson were exactly the sort of discreet, deep-pocketed owners the league craved.
They did everything differently, it was said, from Jim Balsillie, the Research In Motion billionaire who, in several instances, tried to land an NHL club by various methods, including battling the NHL in court over the Phoenix Coyotes.
There were no such dust-ups with Chipman.
Chipman challenges the popular perception that the Winnipeg group saw how Balsillie’s group was going about their business and “chose to follow a different course. For quite some time before that we had been trying to acquire a team. It’s an easy comparison, but probably an unfair one.”
They’d hoped for Phoenix – retribution, mostly – but were happy to embrace the Thrashers. Phoenix had a better record but it was an older team with lots of contracts coming due. “We weren’t sure how many of those guys would come,” Chipman concedes. “Looking at the two teams side by side, we thought we had a better platform to build on with Atlanta.”
They also thought that the younger Atlanta players would be more open to Winnipeg as a home. New captain Andrew Ladd, a native of Maple Ridge, B.C., even flew into Winnipeg on his own dime, met with the new owners and sent word back to his teammates that this looked like a good situation.
“We wouldn’t have been able to bring the team back,” Chipman says candidly, “if it was the same city.”
Losing the Jets, in fact, had shaken the city in certain good ways. “We looked around and realized all we’ve got is ourselves,” he says. “Nobody else is going to drop a lot of prosperity on us.”
Out of the young business leaders’ group that failed to save the Jets grew a larger Manitoba business organization that worked to secure the Pan-Am Games, that ran capital campaigns to fund hospital and university improvements. A new ball park went up near The Forks and the Forks became a centre, now site for the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights that will instantly become the city’s most recognizable landmark.
“What we found in May, 2011,” Chipman says, “was a different place than 1996.”
Back in 1996, the Force of Darkness appeared to reside in one man, an outsider who ran the NHL from a New York office and who appeared to disdain small markets: league commissioner Gary Bettman. Bettman was regularly vilified in Manitoba for what happened.
Chipman says it’s an unfair rap. Chipman argues no single outsider worked harder to bring an NHL franchise back to Manitoba than Bettman himself.
“I think his image in Canada has been unfairly or inaccurately portrayed,” Chipman says. “I think that when the team left here people were looking for somebody to blame, and the league and the commissioner were an obvious, easy target.
“Until the year of the work stoppage, NHL hockey was seen as an unsustainable broken business, but people just loved the game for the game itself, and when the business of the game isn’t working it’s hard for people to understand. So the league became the enemy.
“It’s an unfortunate reality and, hopefully, in due course that will change.”
Credit also must go, Chipman says, to the incredibly patient fans of Winnipeg, who have turned out for training camp and exhibition games as though last year’s Thrashers are this year’s Stanley Cup champions.
Bettman felt the power of the people when Chipman held up that phone so the commissioner could hear for himself.
And True North felt the power when their inclination to go for a brand-new name signalling a brand-new start – the “Bears” was a favoured choice – the fans dug in to a point where True North felt they had no alternative but to return to the Jets name.
“The community owns the team,” Chipman says. “Absolutely. We are maybe the trustees – but teams belong to communities.”
And the Winnipeg Jets, therefore, are back where they belong.