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The Globe and Mail

A proud moment for the humble man who brought pro hockey back to Winnipeg

Mark Chipman grabbed a napkin and started drawing feverishly. It was a cold winter day in 1997 and Mr. Chipman was sharing a coffee at a downtown Winnipeg restaurant called The Fyxx with his brother Jeff and Glen Murray, a city councillor who was thinking about running for mayor.

The three were pondering the sad state of the city, which had recently lost the NHL's Winnipeg Jets and gone through a horrid spring of flooding. Mr. Chipman was part of a group that had bought the Minnesota Moose of the International Hockey League and moved the club to Winnipeg, changing the name to the Manitoba Moose.

As they sat in the coffee shop that day, the trio knew the Moose weren't enough and they wanted to do much more. They started talking about big plans, like building a fancy arena in the city's downtown and maybe, just maybe, winning back the NHL one day. "We just thought, 'What could we do?'" recalled Mr. Murray, who served six years as Winnipeg's mayor and is now a provincial cabinet minister in Ontario. "So we started drawing up plans on some of the napkins."

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It took 14 years, but on Tuesday Mr. Chipman finally saw those sketched-out plans bear fruit with the official announcement that the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers will be sold to True North Sports and Entertainment, a company he founded, and moved to Winnipeg.

"I expected our city would one day again take membership in the NHL," Mr. Chipman told a news conference in his usual understated manner. "In a sense I guess you could say that True North, our city and our province has received the call we've long since been waiting for."

Mr. Murray said no one else but Mr. Chipman had the patience, the perseverance and the tenacity to pull it off. "He's just unflappable. A steady-as-you-go, honest and unassuming person," Mr. Murray said.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Mr. Chipman was a passionate hockey fan but at the urging of his father, Robert, ended up pursuing football instead. "I grew up playing hockey," Mr. Chipman said. "I wish I had been a better player than I was. I played until I was 15 and then my father wisely made a decision for me. I was trying to play football and hockey and he gently steered me in the right direction."

The switch to football paid off and Mr. Chipman ended up winning an athletic scholarship to the University of North Dakota, where he was a receiver and backup quarterback. He was good enough to merit a tryout with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 1983 and even managed to get into one exhibition game before being cut by legendary coach Cal Murphy. "Please don't think I was any kind of athlete," Mr. Chipman insisted, playing down his accomplishments.

He knew his athletic limitations well enough to stick to his studies and he graduated from North Dakota with degrees in economics and law. As a newly minted lawyer, Mr. Chipman headed to Florida where he worked as a criminal prosecutor in Bradenton and Sarasota before returning to Winnipeg in 1988 to join his father's growing business. His brothers, Jeff and Stephen, had also found their way into business, while his sister, Susan Millican, went into broadcasting.

By the late 1980s the family's company had interests in real estate, property development and a collection of around 16 car dealerships. Mr. Chipman joined the auto side, Birchwood Automotive Group, and became president in 1992. He took over the entire family business in 2001.

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He also fell in love with the Jets, becoming a long-time season's ticket holder and rabid fan. When the club ran into financial trouble and moved to Phoenix in 1996, Mr. Chipman felt crushed. He'd joined a group of businessmen that tried to keep the team in the city, but they simply couldn't overcome the club's lousy economics and the city's lack of a proper arena.

"The huge sticking point was who was going to be the ownership group and the fact that we didn't have a new arena," recalled Susan Thompson, Winnipeg's mayor at the time.

"When we lost the team, there was just a feeling of frustration and emptiness," Mr. Chipman told The Globe and Mail in 1998.

But Mr. Chipman refused to give up. He found an ally in Mr. Murray, who pushed for a new downtown arena for the Moose after becoming mayor in 1998. Then he won over David Thomson, whose billionaire family owned several pieces of land around the Eaton's store on Portage Avenue which closed in 1999 and became Mr. Chipman's preferred location for the arena. Mr. Thomson kicked in $5-million, according to Mr. Murray, and became a critical partner in True North.

By 2004, True North had a new 15,000-seat downtown arena, the MTS Centre, and had moved the Moose into the American Hockey League where it was affiliated with the NHL's Vancouver Canucks. But the dream of an NHL team in Winnipeg still seemed a long way off.

Then Mr. Chipman got lucky.

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That year the NHL locked out its players in a prolonged battle over a new collective agreement. When the dispute ended in July, 2005, with a new salary cap that favoured the owners, the economics of having a team in Winnipeg suddenly looked promising. "We started doing the math and we said we think this is very realistic," Mr. Chipman said Tuesday.

Mr. Chipman started quietly pressing the league to reconsider Winnipeg. While Jim Balsillie, co-chief executive of Research In Motion, battled the NHL openly to buy a team and move it to Hamilton, Mr. Chipman kept a low profile, constantly making his pitch behind the scenes. His tenacity paid off when the Atlanta Thrashers became available this spring for an estimated $170-million. The sale to True North and the relocation of the club still have to be approved by the league. But even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suggested Tuesday that it was a done deal.

"Mark has played a stellar role," Mr. Thomson said Tuesday. "You talk determination, perseverance, but it's his humanity. He's a humble man with extraordinary belief and he inspires people."

Ms. Thompson, the former mayor, agreed and said Mr. Chipman is just a nice, quiet, plodding family guy who never quits. "He's a good soul," she said.

With his wife and three daughters standing nearby, Mr. Chipman was initially at a loss for words when asked how he feels now that the NHL has returned to Winnipeg. "Well, I've been trying to find the correct words," he said finally. "The ones that best come to mind are I feel very humbled. … There were lots of times I was sure it wasn't going to happen. But there were more times I thought it was."

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