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The case for Winnipeg Add to ...

For a fleeting moment, the whole modest city broke into swagger.

A 15-year mourning period had lifted, as once forlorn Winnipeg Jets fans were talking openly about who the team should pick up in the off-season and how much they would pay for season tickets.

The tired barroom quarrels over who was to blame for the team's exit turned into unbridled adoration for the white knights trying to land the team here again: local business and hockey mogul Mark Chipman and David Thomson, Canada's richest man.

But even as the city council vote in Glendale, Ariz., on Tuesday quashed any hope of the Phoenix Coyotes returning to Winnipeg - at least for this year - questions remain about why two sharp businessmen and their True North Sports & Entertainment company would bother trying to put NHL hockey in a city whose size and prosperity hasn't changed much since scant crowds and heavy debt forced the Jets out of town a decade and a half ago.

"I'll admit I'm a little perplexed about the economics behind this," said University of Manitoba sports economist Ian Hudson, of the True North bid for the Phoenix Coyotes. "Often sports teams and good economics do not lie comfortably together. Sports ownership is littered with the ranks of people who lose money and don't mind."

But the True North titans are a little different than ego-driven owners such as George Steinbrenner or Mark Cuban. Neither Chipman (a guy doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry) nor Thomson (referred to so often as "the reclusive billionaire" it's become cliché) exude such bravado.

"These are two very savvy businessmen," said Darren Ford, operator of jetsowner.com, a site hosting a well-cited business case for returning the Jets to Winnipeg. "They have learned from [failed Coyotes suitor]Jim Balsillie that you want to do this low-key and by the book."

Their business acumen makes the plan all the more puzzling. True North's current revenue pillars - the 15,000-seat MTS Centre and the AHL's Manitoba Moose - earn the company a tidy profit. The MTS Centre continually ranks as the country's third-busiest entertainment complex in Canada (behind only Bell Centre in Montreal and Air Canada Centre in Toronto) - even though the region's market size ranks eighth in the country.

Chipman has snuffed out any investor reluctance to modifying that money-making formula. He recently bought out the last of several prominent Winnipeg businessmen who invested in the arena's construction 10 years ago.

Only one of Chipman's original partners remains: Osmington Inc., Thomson's real-estate company, which also owns buildings surrounding the MTS Centre.

And that could help explain Thomson's interest. The arrival of an NHL franchise could only boost the value of his holdings in a city in which his family once owned one of the country's most profitable daily papers, the Winnipeg Free Press, and where he was spotted enjoying a Leonard Cohen concert last year.

Aside from Thomson's affection for the city, a Jets homecoming is starting to make strong financial sense as well. When the team left in 1996, a sagging loonie made paying a U.S.-dollar payroll onerous. Dollar parity changes everything.

What's more, the new ownership model - whereby True North holds both team and building - jettisons financial deadweight such as lease payments and a lack of gate and concession revenue that led to million-dollar losses for that team almost every season of its 17-year NHL existence.

"Owning the building makes a huge difference," said Stacey Brook, a sports economist at the University of Iowa. "In the end, you put a team on the ice so that you can sell hot dogs and drinks and big foam fingers. That's where the money is."

Brook pointed out that the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas because, in part, of an abysmal lease agreement. Under a far more favourable deal, the state's new team, the Wild, are thriving.

Since the Jets skipped town, the NHL has also introduced a revenue-sharing agreement that buoys the fortunes of smaller-market teams.

Still, Brook, who was once such a big Jets fan that he asked his wife if he could name all their children Teemu after former Jets star Teemu Selanne, isn't hopeful that True North group will establish a long-lasting NHL franchise in Winnipeg.

He's aware of several reports suggesting Thomson will hold the team in Winnipeg only until a more lucrative spot opens up in Southern Ontario.

"A move to Winnipeg does have the feeling of a stop-gap measure," he said.

A source close to Chipman called that idea "absolutely false" and local fans continually dismiss it.

But the strongest argument for bringing back the NHL might lie with Chipman's iron will to do good for his city. He was singularly responsible for the creation of the MTS Centre and the Manitoba Moose.

"Mark is the greatest businessman I know and he's unbelievably passionate about Winnipeg," said George Sigurdson, a friend and one of the original investors in the MTS Centre. "He went out on a real limb to bring AHL hockey here in the first place. I have no doubt he's willing to do the same for NHL hockey."

 

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