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Why Winnipeg is the perfect place for another NHL team

Hockey fans cheer at the corner of Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg after media reports of the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team moving to Winnipeg, May 19, 2011.


Talking up Winnipeg to a non-Winnipegger is as pointless as explaining a professional hockey team in the desert. But, we expat Manitobans try.

The problem is that it always gets back to winter. The snow, cold, the whole "Portage and Main, 50 below" thing that Randy Bachman wrote about in Prairie Town, the essence of which is the last stanza: "Looking back at a prairie town, People ask me why I went away, To fly with the best, sometimes you have to leave the nest, But the prairies made me what I am today."

So your forgiveness is requested as Gary Bettman's hissy fit plays out, as we while away our time thinking about the Golden Jet and Anders and Ulf and the rest of the original European invasion, and of the Holy Goalie, Joe Daley. And do not get us started on the portrait of the Queen that looked down on three World Hockey Association championships and then an NHL team that always seemed a day late and a dollar short.

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For a country that gets dewy-eyed at the sight of a hockey puck and sees credibility in a former hockey coach best known for dressing like a carnival barker and an inability to keep track of the number of men his team had on the ice in one of the biggest games of his career, Canadians spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about whether the NHL's too big for us.

So it's understandable that with an agreement in principle to rescue the Atlanta Thrashers and bring them to Winnipeg, as much time is being spent worrying about revenue streams in the 15,000-seat MTS Centre as celebrating the return of a piece of our birthright. What's the big deal? You could have accommodated the average home crowd of eight NHL teams this season at the MTS Centre.

And if the 17th wealthiest man in the world, David Thomson, thinks there's something here, I'm on his side. Even if he didn't own this laptop computer, I'd be on his side.

Understanding why the name "Jets" is still held in such high regard after the club left in 1996 is, I believe, why NHL hockey in Winnipeg will succeed this time. The Jets do not symbolize failure; the name has a storied history in the Western Canada Hockey League junior ranks, and the Jets I remember most won three Avco Cup championships in the WHA, signed Bobby Hull and changed the course of hockey history in the process, continuing that trend with an influx of European talent that at the time far exceeded the NHL's meagre experimentation.

There is a lineage and pedigree to the Jets that reaches deep into the soil. Doubtless there are legal issues involved in the use of the name "Jets," and doubtless Thomson and the people at True North Sports and Entertainment who are bankrolling this purchase are due consideration when they urge that "Moose," the name of Winnipeg's American Hockey League team, be retained because they feel, rightly, that they have built up brand loyalty.

That is more evidence about why this is not 1996, when Barry Shenkarow gave up the ghost and sold the team and put it on the rails out of town.

Winnipeggers have always believed they and the team were victims of a bastard set of consequences: a crappy Canadian dollar, an increase in salaries, a hidebound arrangement in an old arena that the underfinanced Shenkarow actually leased from something called the Winnipeg Enterprises Corporation, and a failure of leadership on the part of the city's moneyed elites, both for reasons of personality and style and, yes, prairie prudence.

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True North owns the MTS Centre, the NHL has a salary cap, the Canadian dollar is stronger. Manitoba's economy has been on a roll, boasting $53-billion in gross domestic product last year. The province generated 11,500 jobs in 2010, its best showing in eight years. Economists are forecasting that Manitoba's unemployment rate will dip this year to 5.1 per cent compared with 5.4 per cent last year.

While Manitoba has a population of 1.23 million, the Winnipeg hockey club will also draw from Saskatchewan, which has enjoyed its own economic renaissance.

"Everybody thinks about Alberta growing, but the western region has benefited from economic growth, too," said Barry Prentice, a business professor at the University of Manitoba. "As Calgary and Edmonton have grown, so has Winnipeg. Manitoba and Saskatchewan used to be losers, but now we're gaining. It's a fabulous thing to have the NHL back."

University of Manitoba finance professor John McCallum noted that Winnipeg will draw fans from Saskatchewan, northern Ontario, northern Minnesota and North Dakota. He added that manufacturers in the Winnipeg area have thrived on their proximity to the Canada-U.S. border, sending goods south.

So if this is a risk, then it's a risk worth taking, in a place that actually cares about the game enough to have missed it when it was gone.

That's our story, at least. And as expat Manitobans, we're sticking to it.

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With a report from Brent Jang

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