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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Winnipeg hockey fans dream again Add to ...

Hockey fans in Manitoba, watching the Chicago Blackhawks hoist the Stanley Cup, can legitimately dream that some day, perhaps quite soon, a team of their own might rejoin the hunt for the National Hockey League championship.

Before Canadians elsewhere snicker - didn't the Winnipeg Jets leave 15 years ago for Arizona? - remember that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been speaking favourably about Winnipeg's chances of recovering that franchise. Mr. Bettman might not be Mr. Personality, if you'll pardon the understatement, but he carries a big stick in the league.

Mr. Bettman and the NHL executive committee would prefer to keep the ailing Phoenix Coyotes in the desert, but for one inconvenient fact: No one with deep enough pockets wants to own a hockey team there.

It used to be that Mr. Bettman insisted the Coyotes were in fine financial shape and that the league had buyers just waiting to pounce. Not so, of course. One potential owner, Jerry Reinsdorf of Chicago, has just renounced whatever interest he had shown, while another, Ice Edge Holdings, is scrambling to find the cash to present a credible offer.

For now, the NHL owns the Coyotes, who will definitely stay in Phoenix for at least the 2010-11 season, since the municipal council of Glendale has already placed $25-million in an escrow account to cover the team's anticipated losses for the coming season.

That financial silliness can't continue. Either Ice Edge comes up the with money and takes control of the team - a quite iffy proposition - or the NHL starts again looking for a buyer to keep the team in Phoenix. If that search fails - there is every chance that it would - then cue Winnipeg.

There, prospective owners have been quietly assembling the money, making friends with Mr. Bettman and the league, preparing their plans, building an arena and otherwise readying themselves for the return of NHL hockey to Manitoba.

They have gone about their business in exactly the opposite fashion to Research in Motion's James Balsillie, who took his battle for a franchise in Southern Ontario very public. What turned into a confrontation between him and the league's owners ended predictably: He lost.

The Winnipeg consortium, fronted by local businessman Mark Chipman and supported by David Thomson, who owns the rink and is a major owner of CTVglobemedia, has stayed out of the news, worked carefully to cultivate other team owners and executives, remained on good terms with the powerful commissioner and might, just might, might pull off the return of the NHL to Winnipeg.

The Chipman Group already owns a hockey arena on Portage Avenue in downtown Winnipeg, where the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League play. The MTS Centre seats 15,000 with 50 boxes. As such, it would be the smallest arena in the league, with correspondingly lower revenue-generating capacity than bigger cities with hugely popular teams.

A Winnipeg team would generate more revenue, to be sure, than ailing U.S. franchises with indifferent attendance, including of course the Coyotes, but also teams in Miami, Tampa Bay, Long Island and Nashville.

The MTS Centre could be expanded, but that is not in the plans. Filling the arena as is, and keeping the team's salary costs in the middle of the salary cap zone of $41-million to $58-million, would be enough to keep the franchise afloat, especially since the MTS Centre is remarkably busy with non-hockey events for a city of 700,000.

As the Jets threatened to depart, controversy raged about how or if to save the franchise. The Jets needed a new arena. Even with a new building, severe doubt swirled about Winnipeg's ability to support an NHL franchise. After all, there was no salary cap, the Canadian dollar was lower vis à vis the U.S. dollar than today, the league wasn't pulling in as much revenue.

Those fiercely opposed to spending any public money on an arena made a meal of the issue. Eventually, the private sector couldn't resolve the issues around owning the Jets. With the prospect of a new building uncertain, the franchise went south.

Now, the Phoenix experiment remaining in tatters, hockey fans in Manitoba are ready, holding their breath, and dreaming that perhaps in the spring of 2012, a Winnipeg team (Jets? Moose? Polar Bears?) might be in the NHL playoffs. Again.

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