The reality behind the Winnipeg-NHL relationship

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The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Like any hockey season, 2010-11 has had its share of highs and lows. From the perspective of Canadian hockey, the return of the NHL to Winnipeg is one of the biggest "good news" stories in many years.

The sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to the True North group in Winnipeg still needs to be ratified by the NHL Board of Governors on June 21. Once that last hurdle is overcome, Manitoba hockey fans can start speculating on real "hockey" matters such as draft selections and roster moves. The event the many passionate hockey fans of Manitoba and northwestern Ontario were afraid to even dream is about to take place. The NHL is returning to Winnipeg!

Hockey's "Men of the Year" in Canada have to be the principals behind True North. The members of the Chipman and Thomson families and their colleagues have operated in a quiet, professional manner usually far from media glare and their accomplishments are significant. They should rightly be hailed as the heroes who overcame great odds to purchase an NHL team that will now play in a modern, attractive NHL arena in Manitoba’s capital.

Manitoba’s hockey fans, business community and political elite vilified the NHL when the Winnipeg Jets were sold and relocated to Phoenix in 1996. People vented loudly the move was part of an anti-Canadian plot that would tear teams from their Canadian homes in order to relocate them within the American Sun Belt. By doing so, the greedy owners (mostly American) would enrich themselves with a lucrative new television contract.

Much of this criticism was inaccurate and unfair. The reality was that Manitoba's elites could not agree on the construction of a suitable arena and no local group wanted to step forward and purchase the team. Despite the sad sight of local children emptying their piggy banks at public rallies in downtown Winnipeg, the finances of the NHL looked to be beyond the reach of Winnipeg and Manitoba.

True North eschewed the drama and public profile of the groups that had tried to save the Winnipeg Jets. They opted to build a rock solid financial base and then spent several years building the political and financial bridges necessary for the construction of a new downtown arena. They acquired and operated an American League franchise in a first rate manner. With these solid bases in place, True North then began their quiet persuasion of NHL brass, a process that is now bearing fruit.

True North had some major obstacles to overcome. The 1996 divorce between the NHL and Winnipeg had been anything but amicable. To many in the NHL hierarchy Winnipeg was "yesterday's town" - a desolate prairie outpost with a population smaller than any NHL city and a place where the financial good times were long past.

Although the Jets left town, the past decade has been a good one for Winnipeg. During the "bust" period that followed the "booms" of earlier years, other cities and regions fell on hard times. Winnipeg has enjoyed steady growth during this period and its population is more prepared than ever to pay NHL prices. The astounding sale of 13,000 season tickets in the blink of an eye drove this point home.

Despite its recent economic success and social progress, there was something missing in Winnipeg. No city anywhere loves hockey more. World Junior Championships, World Women's Championships and local heroes bringing home the Stanley Cup were not enough. Winnipeg wanted an NHL team of its own. True North capitalized on these realities and is now close to finalizing all local hockey fans' dreams.

As was the case 15 years ago, numerous theories are in vogue. The NHL is said to be retreating from its "Sun Belt" philosophy to return to its northern roots. There is now thought to be a more liberal and open view towards Canadian teams.

Again, these theories are basically inaccurate. The significantly stronger Canadian dollar and a sounder economic base make Canadian franchises more attractive business propositions than they were 15 years ago. The recent economic recession has hit the United States hard. Sports franchises in numerous American cities have fallen upon dire times. Hockey is no exception.

The hockey fans of Manitoba and northwestern Ontario have little time to consider these theories. They are simply waiting for the NHL Board of Governors to ratify the relocation of an NHL franchise to Winnipeg.

Who ever thought life could be so good again?

Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be blogging for this season.



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