Rarely have the blue corporate suits of the National Hockey League stood out more.
Surrounded by a sea of white – the coming "Storm" the Winnipeg Jets fans had promised, not to mention the real snow falling outside on Portage Avenue – commissioner Gary Bettman and his various lieutenants came to Winnipeg Monday.
Bettman was here to witness the Jets' first return to the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1996 and first playoff appearance since the Atlanta Thrashers were relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
"A wonderful, emotional night in the making," predicted the commissioner.
Bettman went out of his way to praise the True North Sports and Entertainment group that purchased the Thrashers for $170-million (U.S.) and brought the Jets back to this hockey-mad province.
In Bettman's opinion, the obvious success of today's Jets – as opposed to the 1996 franchise that naively left town for presumed greener pastures in Phoenix – comes down to three main factors.
First is the True North ownership: "We don't get to here without Mark Chipman and David Thomson."
Second would be the MTS Centre, the rink that replaced the old Winnipeg Arena in 2004 on a downtown block that once held the mammoth Eaton's department store. The 15,004-seat Centre cost $133.5-million to build and has a deserved reputation as the loudest and most-intimate hockey rink in the NHL.
Third, Bettman said, would be the NHL itself, for putting in place a system whereby there is parity and teams anywhere can be competitive and sustainable through such factors as the salary cap (brought in following the 2004-05 lockout season), revenue sharing and protection from shifting currencies.
At the time of the departure of the original Jets – and of the Quebec Nordiques to Denver a year earlier – Canadians had become convinced that the NHL was deliberately trying to shed itself of small-market teams. Leading up to 2000, so much concern had been raised about the viability of the Ottawa Senators, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames that the federal government considered a multimillion-dollar bailout plan – an initiative so poorly received that the Liberal government of the day quickly abandoned the notion.
"That's never been the issue," Bettman contended, saying small-market teams can work just fine if they're run as the Jets are today. "The team, when it left, was a victim of circumstance," he argued. An inadequate rink, shaky ownership, falling dollar. Everything today is different.
"When the opportunity presented itself to come back," he said, "it wasn't an issue."
The Jets were an immediate success on their return. Season tickets went so quickly, in roughly 20 minutes, that the computers set up to handle the transactions crashed.
Naturally, this obvious success is now drawing comparison with another potential "small-market" franchise that certain investors are seeking for Las Vegas.
A group led by Fidelity National Financial chairman William Foley has had a tentative season-ticket drive under way for some time in the gambling and entertainment city.
"The season-ticket drive has gone and is going well," Bettman said, though he did not supply any numbers. Reuters, however, reported Monday that the ticket drive was expected to top the 11,000 mark this week.
A new $350-million hockey rink with a 17,300 seating capacity is being constructed by AEG and MGM Resorts International. Some believe that an expansion team could begin play there in 2016.
Bettman cautioned against reading too much into any of this. Foley, he said, asked only for the opportunity to gauge interest in professional hockey coming to Vegas. Some time prior to the NHL board of governors meeting in June, Bettman will be briefed on the actual numbers for Las Vegas and report to the board. At that point the league will decide "what, if anything, we want to do."
That Winnipeg sold out in moments while Vegas is taking months should not be misunderstood, he said. Winnipeg fans raced to pick up season tickets, "but everyone knew a team was coming."
Bettman did say today's Winnipeg Jets are the new gold standard when it comes to landing a franchise and making it work.
"I don't know how anyone could have done it better."
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