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Will Winnipeg get left at the altar by NHL?

The NHL's dance with Winnipeg is starting to resemble When Harry Met Sally. You know they're going to hook up, it's just a question of when and who buys the flowers.

According to sources, the Winnipeg/NHL wedding is just a matter of whether commissioner Gary Bettman gives away Phoenix or Atlanta. (Sorry, royal nuptials on the brain.)

One aspect of the process that is opaque, however, is where and how the games of the reborn Winnipeg Jets (or Falcons or Polar Bears) will be telecast in Canada.

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Already, fans on Rogers Sportsnet West get miffed when Edmonton Oilers games force the Calgary Flames to a secondary carrier and vice versa. The CBC's Hockey Night In Canada has trouble satisfying its current Canadian obligations once it feeds the Toronto Maple Leafs beast. TSN has created a secondary channel just to do Montreal Canadiens games in English. And so on.

Adding an additional regional channel or forcing more games onto Sportsnet's dedicated team channels (that sit in black much of the time) could help solve the problem. But carriers are already reluctant to carry more Sportsnet channels (they have five). Any additional charges to customers would likewise be poorly received by viewers already complaining about cable/satellite fees. With new technologies promising ways to circumvent conventional carriers, this is a risky proposition.

There's also the potential that regional rights to a Winnipeg franchise could be an entree for an outsider such as the new Shaw Media entity (parent company of Global Television) to get into the NHL scene in advance of a bid for the next national TV package.

Would Global show Winnipeg NHL games? It used to be laughable that Global might bump its lucrative sitcoms and dramas for hockey. Then along came the PVR, and suddenly sports is now the last bastion of appointment viewing for networks.

Needless to say, no one in TV officialdom wants to say too much for fear of provoking the NHL commissioner.

"We've had no conversations with the league about the scheduling impact of a potential additional Canadian team," TSN president Stewart Johnston says in an e-mail. "I won't speculate on that, either."

Request for comment from Rogers Sportsnet met a similar fate. "We don't discuss hypotheticals," spokesman Dave Rashford says.

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A request for comment from Shaw Media was turned down.


How lucrative is the Winnipeg/Manitoba TV market to NHL rights? Like everything else about Winnipeg in the NHL, it's marginal.

Currently, the potential Jets/Falcons/Polar Bears market in Manitoba and Saskatchewan represent just 11 per cent of the CBC's national TV viewing audience – and they're almost all watching hockey already. So, if you're a national advertiser, adding Winnipeg only moves eyeballs from one team to another.

A key decision may be who gets Saskatchewan as a territory. Currently, Edmonton and Calgary have divided the market, but how much will the NHL give to a potential Winnipeg franchise?

Inquiries to the NHL were not answered by press time.

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Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis used the media to send a message to the league last Monday about perceived imbalance in referee calls. Which is the WikiLeaks equivalent in hockey.

On Wednesday, the league fined Gillis an undisclosed amount for going all Julian Assange on the NHL's officiating. Gillis accepted the penalty as the price of doing business in the playoffs.

Did Gillis's gambit work? Despite a number of apparent fouls, the Canucks received just two penalties in Game 7 last Tuesday. Maybe it's all just a coincidence. Maybe.

Look at it this way: Say, Gillis was docked $50,000 for his comments. One second-round playoff game could be worth $2-million to $3-million to the club. If the refs indeed cut the 'Nucks some slack, it seems like Gill paid a price worth paying for Vancouver.

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