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The Globe and Mail

Hard numbers pushing Coyotes toward Winnipeg

It is not merely a romantic notion, though that it surely is.

Anyone who remembers the crowds gathered at the Forks, the Save the Jets rallies, the feeling that a city was a losing a little bit of its soul when it lost its hockey team, has to be moved by the possibility that the ex-Jets might be coming home.

The fact is, there were all kinds of good, cold, logical reasons why the National Hockey League left Winnipeg back in 1996. The arena was too old and too small, player salaries were escalating, the cost of doing business would only get steeper, and the kind of government investment which would have been required to keep the franchise in town was unjustifiable.

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Simply put, the NHL was outgrowing places like Winnipeg. Its destiny lay in much larger markets to the south. The Jets were an anomaly - a leftover from the old World Hockey Association - and if big-league professional hockey were starting afresh, the city, like Edmonton, wouldn't have ever had a team. What was happening was sad, but it was also inevitable, a function of evolution.

And now, the fact is there are all kinds of good, cold, logical reasons why Gary Bettman and the NHL might desperately need to get back to Winnipeg, ASAP.

Nostalgia, sentiment has nothing to do with it. Just as it did in '96, it all comes down to the numbers.

After fighting off the hostile takeover bid from Jim Balsillie last year, the NHL paid $140-million to buy the Coyotes in bankruptcy court. The league estimated operating losses for this season at $20-million, and even if that figure was a bit optimistic given the team's recent red-ink history, the 'Yotes surprising on-ice success this year and the possibility of a playoff run could considerably improve the bottom line.

But the problem is, no one on Earth right now believes that a hockey team in the desert is worth anything close to $160-million. And maintaining franchise value - as much as the considerable haircut the league would have to endure if it sold the team far below that price to either the Ice Edge group or (more likely) Jerry Reinsdorf - has got to be making the NHL governors think twice about their commitment to keeping the Coyotes where they are.

With the Tampa Bay Lightning having recently sold for something less than $100-million (it's hard to divine the exact price of the team in a deal that also included its arena), and with the true value of franchises in struggling markets heading toward pre-lockout values, there have to be some nervous owners around right now - both those who have already, quietly put their teams on the block (there are several), and those who are dealing with nervous bankers.

In that context, Winnipeg starts to look a whole lot more attractive than it once did. Other than Southern Ontario - which, because of the Leafs' and Sabres' territorial claims, remains problematic - there aren't any other options for unloading a team quickly. (Talk Kansas City or Las Vegas or Seattle all you want - until an owner-and-arena combination surfaces in any of those places, they're pipe dreams.) The NHL can walk away from the Glendale lease at the end of this season, and presumably, the team could be playing in the MTS Centre come October.

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It's not a perfect solution. Winnipeg would be the smallest market in the league, the arena's seating capacity is worrisome, and the minute the Canadian dollar begins to dip, the same old issues are going to resurface. But given the fact that there appears to be deep-pocketed potential owners (Mark Chipman and David Thomson) ready and willing to make a deal at a price that would take the NHL off the hook and prop up franchise value, you'd have to wonder if there's a better place to be.

Some people, claiming to be in the know, say it's all but a done deal. Other people, claiming to be in the know, say it's nothing close, that all of the Winnipeg talk is merely a ploy to force the city fathers of Glendale into offering up huge concessions to an owner willing to keep the Coyotes there.

What's certain is that anyone hoping to repatriate the Jets would be well advised to play the game discreetly and diplomatically, to curry favour with the commissioner, to be the anti-Balsillie.

Here's betting that's exactly what's going on, and that given the league's tumbling dominos, it is no longer a matter of if, but when.

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