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CP/David Lipnowski (David Lipnowski/CP)
CP/David Lipnowski (David Lipnowski/CP)

NHL team takes shape in Winnipeg Add to ...

It started with the new press box.

Once the reporters covering the Manitoba Moose saw construction start on a new box that ran almost the length of the MTS Centre, as soon as the American Hockey League team's season ended a couple of months ago, they figured there finally was something concrete behind all that talk of an NHL team moving to Winnipeg.

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Scott Brown, director of corporate communications and hockey operations for True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., said the new press box was planned long before the company bought the Atlanta Thrashers. The existing press box had too many seats with obstructed views. But, he allowed, "this talk of the NHL maybe sped this process up a little bit."

Now that the return of the NHL to Winnipeg is a reality, Brown, True North chairman Mark Chipman and the rest of the staff are speeding up the process on many fronts. Since True North already had staff and an arena in place for the Moose, it had a running start at moving the Thrashers to Winnipeg. In the 15 weeks before NHL training camps open in September, much has to be done. The tasks range from a decision on whether to retain Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley and his staff, including head coach Craig Ramsay; selling season tickets and luxury suites; choosing a team name, logo and colours; moving the Moose to St. John's; setting a payroll; and minor renovations of the MTS Centre to bring it up to NHL standards.

Plus there is the work that means the most to Winnipeg hockey fans - signing restricted free agents like Andrew Ladd, Anthony Stewart, Blake Wheeler and Zach Bogosian.

"It is a little overwhelming right now," Chipman said. "But we had a plan in place, what I would call an execution plan for who is doing what, and we're all doing those things now. I'm comfortable everybody has those assignments and we're well on our way."

Most of the work being done this week bears the mark of careful planning. For example, the domain name for True North's season-ticket campaign website, www.driveto13.com, was purchased in February. Then there is the campaign itself.

It was True North's idea to sell 13,000 season tickets, with commitments of three to five years from buyers, before the NHL's board of governors votes to approve the sale on June 21. This was not a condition demanded by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, even though he warned Winnipeggers: "This thing isn't going to work very well if this building isn't sold out every night."

A look at the NHL collective agreement shows this was a canny move by True North. There are two conditions in the agreement for a team to qualify for a full share of the league's revenue-sharing plan: revenue growth in the current season above the league average from the previous season, and ticket sales of at least 80 per cent of your arena's capacity.

There is no doubt True North will sell 13,000 of the arena's 15,000 seats. The first three days of the ticket campaign saw 7,158 sold by Friday night to Moose subscribers, before the public gets a crack at them on Saturday.

Those 13,000 seats represent 87 per cent of the MTS Centre's capacity. So Chipman and his partners will know that for the next three years they have a great chance of getting a full share from the revenue pie, which could be $15-million (all currency U.S.) or more a year.

Chipman protests this was only a happy byproduct of a well-thought-out business plan. "That was not done on purpose," he said. "The goal was set to ensure success with our own business model."

With the smallest arena in the league and the smallest city in the league (metropolitan population 750,000), Chipman and his partner in True North, David Thomson, whose family company owns The Globe and Mail, have to plan carefully. But it bodes well that their price range of $39 to $129 a seat for season tickets has not scared off buyers. The average ticket price is a little more than $80, which means revenue of about $1.3-million a game, which could put the team in the top 15 teams and eliminate the need for revenue sharing.

The number of private boxes will go to 55 from 48. Also rising are the boxes' price - tripling, in fact - to an average of $180,000 a year. Chipman met with a group of suite holders the morning after the Thrashers sale was announced and said some customers had concerns but not cold feet. True North already has a long waiting list to replace anyone who takes a pass.

The new logo, colours and team name will not be announced until the season-ticket drive is finished, probably next week at the earliest. The most popular suggestions for colours are the blue and red of Winnipeg's last NHL team, the Jets, while the Moose's colour scheme of gold, green and black is getting some support. Jets also seems to be the favourite in the name game, although Chipman is noncommittal.

One thing that will not happen is raising the MTS roof to add another 2,000 or 3,000 seats. Brown says True North's market studies show adding that many seats would outstrip demand.

"There are no plans to build another 2,000 or 3,000 seats," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

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