The Return of NHL Hockey to Winnipeg
There's something about the intersection of Portage and Main that only Winnipeggers get. Two busy roads ringed by tall commercial buildings that offer no shops or attractions that might make a visitor stop and linger. But somewhere deep in the city's DNA, it is imprinted as a gathering place on momentous occasions. Most especially in relation to hockey. It's where Bobby HULL signed his million-dollar deal with the World Hockey Association's Winnipeg Jets. Where fans feted the selection of the great Dale Hawerchuk as the first overall pick in the 1981 NHL draft. And where the desperate vigils were held as the franchise started to slip away in the spring of 1995.
And so it was on the morning of May 31, 2011, when big league hockey finally made its long-awaited return to Canada's heartland. There were kids playing road hockey on a strip of sidewalk complete with goalies and nets. Jersey-clad men, waving Jets flags and hoisting a replica STANLEY CUP. Even a couple of guys who had brought along red chairs from the old Winnipeg Arena. But the crowd of around 1,000 mostly stood and watched a press conference being beamed onto outdoor TV screens from the basement of the MTS Centre down the block. Waiting for the words that would set their fandom free.
The preamble took a few minutes, but finally Mark Chipman, the chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, made it official. "I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers," he said. "We received the call we've long been waiting for." It's not a done deal--the purchase still needs the approval of the NHL's board of governors and is contingent on the organization selling at least 13,000 season tickets over the next three weeks--but close enough to touch off celebrations around the province and across the country. A couple of weeks of frenzied deal-making that continued right through the final night, and then Winnipeg's civic pride restored at a reported purchase price of US$170 million--US$110 million for the fractious owners of the Thrashers, and a US$60-million "relocation fee" for the league.
For the moment, it's unclear what the new team will be called. (Smart money remains on the Jets, whose name and trademarks are owned by the league, although with the prodigal franchise's descendant still operating in Phoenix, it might be complicated.) But it doesn't really matter. A decade and a half after the Quebec Nordiques and then the Jets moved south of the border, it is an unqualified win for the city, the province and the country. "To be able to come back to right a wrong, if you will, is an extraordinary thing," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the assembled media. Although he clearly wasn't pleased to be moving a franchise for the first time in 14 years, there was no denying the natural justice. "We get to be back in a place that we wish we didn't have to leave in 1996," he said, and return a franchise to Canada, "which we know is the heart and soul of our game." And he congratulated Chipman, probably the most discreet man in Canada, on his "patience, professionalism, perseverance and persistence."
The 50-year-old scion of a Winnipeg car dealer and real estate mogul had been working with quiet, single-minded devotion to the goal since he was part of the failed efforts to save the Jets. It was True North that purchased the Minnesota Moose and brought pro hockey back to Winnipeg in 1996. It was True North that finally got a new rink built after the multiple failures of other groups. And it was True North--Chipman actually--who first started telling Gary Bettman back in 2001 that the NHL was destined to come back to Winnipeg whether the league liked it or not. And unlike BlackBerry's Jim Balsillie, he never let his ambitions drive the process. Even in 2007, when the NHL executive committee invited True North to present the city's economic case for another team, Chipman kept his mouth shut. Word of the meeting finally leaked out six months later.
When it looked like Phoenix might need a new home in 2009-10, True North made quiet improvements to the MTS Centre, including a major expansion of the press box. And as the Coyotes saga played out again this season, True North stood ready, judiciously avoiding all comment. The city of Glendale's unexpected decision on May 11 to kick in another US$25 million to guarantee one more season of hockey in the desert must have come as a blow. But just three weeks later, Chipman was at the podium welcoming a different team to town.
"Business deals are done behind closed doors," says Sam Katz, Winnipeg's mayor. "And I think True North deserves a lot of credit for keeping silent until it got done." Chipman and his partners--including David Thomson, Canada's richest man--have given the city, province and country a gift, says the mayor, restoring pride and good feelings. "Fifteen years ago, it was like someone stuck a fist between your ribs and pulled your heart out." On May 31, as promised, he led a conga line several hundred people long through the of?cial civic celebration at the Forks.
It will be of little consolation to Thrashers fans, but at least it was quick. A couple of weeks of limited suspense as the negotiations progressed, a set of clear villains in the squabbling Atlanta Spirit ownership group, and then a mumbled goodbye on a holiday Monday. (America's Memorial Day, fittingly enough.) Better surely than the old Winnipeg Jets with their slow-motion death, followed by a joyless season-long wake.
Barry Shenkarow, the Winnipeg lawyer who took control of the franchise just before it joined the NHL as part of the 1979 absorption of the old World Hockey Association, never seemed that convinced it had much of a future. In 1985, after the team's 96-point, best-ever season, he sold a 36 per cent interest to the city for $2.8 million. Three years later, he began pushing for a new taxpayer-funded arena, warning that the club's mounting losses could force him to relocate. Even when the province stepped in, agreeing in 1991 to cover the Jets' red ink while new investors were sought, it wasn't enough. As the lockout-shortened '94-95 season drew to a close, the Manitoba Entertainment Complex--a consortium of 44 local business leaders looking to buy the team and build a new rink--unravelled. And Shenkarow announced that he had buyers in Minneapolis who were willing to pay US$65 million for the team; $100 million Canadian in those weak dollar times. "For a purely business transaction, the NHL is too big for Winnipeg," he said. "I think everybody knows that."
The last-ditch efforts were stirring--a crowd of 35,000 at a Save Our Jets rally at the Forks that May 16, as everyone from multi-millionaire businessmen to piggy-bank-clutching children vowed to contribute. Spirit of Manitoba, a group of Winnipeg's young business leaders, including a then-35-year-old Mark Chipman, whipped up a plan to buy the team and raise an endowment of $50 million to $100 million to cover future losses. But when they gathered a couple of days later in a boardroom overlooking Portage and Main to convert the pledges into hard cash, it became clear that there was more goodwill than actual money. A crowd of thousands, gathered in the street below, waited for a clutch save that never came. "I could hear [Stompin' Tom Connors's] Good Old Hockey Game pounding. I remember that very vividly," Chipman recalled in a 2007 Winnipeg Free Press story. "The irony of that really hit me; that there were these people that--myself included--were so passionately desirous that this was going to come together and obviously it wasn't going to."
The dream didn't die easy: it took until mid-August for Spirit of Manitoba to officially throw in the towel. The next day, Aug. 15, 1995, Shenkarow announced the team would move after the coming season, although Phoenix ended up as the destination rather than Minnesota. It was a not-so-fond farewell that provided plenty of opportunity for blame and recrimination. Jim Silver, a University of Winnipeg political scientist and anti-poverty activist who headed up Thin Ice, a local group opposed to using public funds to subsidize pro hockey, recalls being shunned at a community corn roast. "Nobody spoke to my wife and me." His office door at the university was defaced, and on a couple of occasions Winnipeg police were dispatched to his house after other group members received death threats. "I was somewhat surprised at how emotional people were, and I was appalled at the role the media played. They weren't even remotely balanced," he says.
Fifteen years on, Silver, himself a former Junior B centre for the River Heights Cardinals, isn't opposed to the NHL's return--in fact, he looks forward to taking his grandsons to a game. He remains convinced, however, that Thin Ice was right to object at the time. "We had kids lined up in front of the Salvation Army waiting for breakfast and they wanted to give millions of dollars to people to play a game," he says. "It just wasn't financially viable then. None of the corporate leaders were willing to put in money."
A bigger, or more indifferent, city might have been able to shrug it off. But Winnipeg wasn't just hurt by the loss of the Jets, it was scarred. "Everyone felt like a loser," says Gail Asper, the driving force behind the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, now under construction at the Forks. "In Canada, and for sure in Winnipeg, hockey is a key part of our identity. Having an NHL team meant you could hold your head high because your city played with the big boys." The depression and bitterness lingered for years. When True North brought the Moose to town in 1996, some of Asper's friends refused to attend games on principle. When the club joined the American Hockey League and became the Vancouver Canucks' farm team, the humiliation was even harder to bear. Asper, who took her husband to a Jets game on their first date almost 30 years ago, says the return of the NHL, along with the museum and other big-ticket projects, should go a long way to erasing Winnipeg's civic inferiority complex. "We have a very fragile sense of self-esteem here. But at long last it's starting to change." The memories of the glory days, when the team made it to the WHA final five times in seven years, thrice winning the Avco Cup, have never really faded. Asper will be in the crowd for every home game she can attend, she says, wearing her Anders Hedberg jersey.
The Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon, 120 km southeast of Atlanta, boasts 14,000 sq. feet of display space and some 3,000 artifacts. Four of them relate to the two National Hockey League teams that called the state home for a total of 19 seasons. There's a stick from the Thrashers' first game, signed by all the players, along with a souvenir jersey. A fan of the Atlanta Flames, the franchise that decamped to Calgary in 1980, donated a red sweater adorned with the burning "A." And there's a goalie mask autographed by their backstop, Dan Bouchard, who finished his career with the Winnipeg Jets in '85-86. None of the hall of fame's 377 inductees have anything to do with hockey. "It's open to anyone who brings honour to Georgia through sports," explains Benjamin Baughman, the senior curator. "I guess no players have been deemed worthy enough in the eyes of the voters." Although it seems like more of an oversight than a prejudice. There's a pretty big display case devoted to the Macon Whoopee, a now defunct East Coast Hockey League team, notes Baughman.
To be fair, neither the Flames nor the Thrashers exactly covered themselves in glory. Even by Atlanta standards--with exactly one championship title, the Braves' 1995 World Series, in 151 seasons of the four major pro sports--they sucked. Playing in a league that bounced between 17 and 21 teams, the Flames made the playoffs six times, but never won a series. Over a decade in a 30-team NHL, the Thrashers made the post-season only once--winning their division in 2006-07 and then getting swept by the New York Rangers in the first round.
Jeff Schultz, a sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, says the local sports market is dominated by two teams--the University of Georgia football squad, and whoever else happens to be flavour of the month. For a brief period, it was the Thrashers. But when the team stopped winning, the casual fans tuned out. Several seasons of unbroken mediocrity later, there were even fewer bums in the seats at Philips Arena. Schultz doesn't blame the paying customers: he blames the chintzy owners--the team had the second lowest payroll in the NHL last season--and an indifferent league. "There's not as many hockey fans here as Boston or New York," he says. "But don't tell me that Atlanta is a worse hockey market than Tampa, or San Jose, or Dallas."
The Atlanta Spirit group, which owned both the Thrashers and the NBA's Hawks, may well have set a new standard for front office dysfunction. When it purchased the money-losing teams in March 2004, it was with an eye to making a quick buck. Anticipating the NHL lockout, Atlanta Spirit figured the value of the Thrashers would soar after a salary cap was imposed on the players, and planned to flip the franchise as soon as possible. But in the summer of 2005, an internal struggle between Steve Belkin and his seven partners, over the signing of a basketball player and the disposition of free tickets to the NBA's all-star game, quickly escalated to the courts. At the NBA's insistence, a deal was quickly brokered to buy out Belkin's 30 per cent share.
But that too dissolved into acrimony and legal challenges. Last December, after close to five years of litigation, a Maryland judge essentially tore up the sale agreement. A couple of weeks later, a settlement was reached. In January, the remaining members of Atlanta Spirit filed a $200-million malpractice suit against the law firm that had drafted the Belkin deal, claiming the murky ownership situation had kept them from selling the Thrashers. Since 2005, the value of the team has dropped by $50 million, says the suit, and the losses have topped $120 million. (Although it was only two years ago that co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. was boasting that losses were substantially down, and that Atlanta Spirit was "financially sound.")
In recent weeks, even the Thrashers' players started to despair about their bosses. "It's discouraging that they're not behind us," winger Chris Thorburn told a local TV station. "They're trying to dump us and that makes a guy mad." He was a little more diplomatic about the league's role, but wondered aloud where commissioner Gary Bettman--so front and centre in efforts to save the Phoenix Coyotes--had been in his and his teammates' hour of need.
Those hockey fans that the franchise are leaving behind now wonder whether the game itself will be wiped off Georgia's sporting map. Kelly Hurt, player development chair for the Southern Amateur Hockey Association, says that the Thrashers were instrumental in growing the game. (Her own twin boys, John and Will, became involved in the sport after attending an Atlanta practice and meeting the players.) This year the state's eighth rink opened, and 80 kids signed up for the intro hockey program. And in the greater Atlanta area, there are now 22 high school teams facing off. Still, Hurt, a long-time Thrashers season-ticket holder, admits she too had become discouraged by the product on the ice. "At $80 for a decent ticket, it was just too expensive to go down there and see poor hockey played," she says.
A little over a week ago, even as negotiations with True North were coming to a close, the Thrashers held their annual "select-a-seat" promotion at Philips Arena. A few hard-core fans put down deposits for the 2011-12 season, but most of the 250 or so in attendance came for one last tailgate party. Some wag--undoubtedly a wandering Manitoban--hung a Go Jets Go! banner from the rink's parking garage. The locals cut it down and set it on fire. It was their only protest.
When the Jets left Winnipeg in 1996, the team payroll was US$13 million, well below the league average of $16 million, and little more than half of what the L.A. Kings had been spending on Wayne Gretzky and company. Over their last six seasons, the Jets lost close to $20 million.
For 2011-12, the NHL's salary cap will likely be close to $62 million, and its minimum "floor" about $46 million. The Thrashers/Jets, with just 15 players under contract, are already committed to spending close to $36 million. Defenceman Dustin Byfuglien is set to earn the most, at $5.2 million. Around the league, the average player salary last season was $2.3 million.
So what's changed to make an NHL franchise, and hefty players salaries, suddenly viable on the Prairies? A Canadian dollar at par with the U.S. greenback, for one. A labour deal that limits player compensation to 57 per cent of league revenues, for another. (Although that agreement expires in the fall of 2012.) A booming economy and Winnipeg's growing population also help. But the biggest differences between 1996 and 2011 are the rink and the ownership.
Mark Chipman and his True North colleagues have been single-mindedly pursuing the return of an NHL franchise since almost the day the Jets left. Glen Murray, Winnipeg's mayor from 1998 to 2004 and now Ontario's minister of innovation, says he and the Chipman family started meeting about the new arena even before he was elected. "We had to create the conditions to host an NHL team again." Starting in late 1999, there were back-and-forth negotiations with the province about how it might all be funded. Initially, Chipman asked for $60 million, an on-site casino to cover his operating costs, and a guarantee that the government would take care of any losses: a non-starter. But by the time the $170-million project was officially announced in May 2001, he had found some deep-pocketed partners, including Toronto's David Thomson, whose family company owned the former Eaton's at the corner of Portage Avenue and Donald Street, which became the site of the MTS Centre. The three levels of government eventually agreed to pick up 30 per cent of the construction costs of $40.5 million, and in November 2004, Winnipeg finally cut the ribbon on its big league rink.
At just 15,000 seats, the MTS Centre is now the smallest barn in the NHL. But even before the puck drops it is already among its most profitable. Designed as a top-flight concert and event venue, as well as a sports one, the building has become one the busiest facilities in North America, occupied more than 200 times a year. On-site restaurants and retail add year-round revenue streams. "It doesn't need an NHL team to make it work," says Glen Murray, who has the framed architectural drawings of the rink on his office wall at the Ontario legislature. "It was an incredibly successful model. A solution not only for Winnipeg but for other places like Hamilton and Quebec City."
What promises to make a small-market NHL team sustainable, however, is True North's ambitious plans to sell a minimum of 13,000 season tickets over the next three weeks, with "binding" commitments of three to five years. The building's configuration is also heavy on club seats and more "modest" luxury boxes, enabling small and medium-sized businesses to buy into the top tier--crucial flexibility in a city with just 33 corporate head offices. And if all that fails, there's always co-owner Thomson, 17th on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people, with a family fortune pegged at $23 billion.
With tickets ranging from $39 to $129, the new Winnipeg franchise is roughly on par with Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary's prices, but well above the league average. Surely not a short-term problem in an NHL-starved city, but perhaps a gamble down the line should the economy go south, or on-ice performance fail to live up to the cost.
Those who know the city best, however, are confident that this time things will be different. Thomas Steen, who played his entire 14-season NHL career for the Jets, retiring when it looked like they would leave the city at the end of '94-95, is about as happy as a stoic Swede can be. "It was something we missed. It was a big part of us," says Steen, now a city councillor. Playing in Winnipeg was special, he says. "It was a great place to go to work every day. People cared tons." Even today, he still gets recognized at the grocery store. He's a bit circumspect when asked if he'd like to see his son Alex, now with the St. Louis Blues, join the new franchise. But he maintains that the current generation of players are going to love the city as much as he and his teammates did. "It's going to take a lot of support for Winnipeggers to make it a success. But it's a great hockey community."
Even on a cool Manitoba spring day, the return of one of Canada's lost hockey franchises seemed to provoke a fever. "NHL welcome home," declared a beaming Premier Greg Selinger. "We've missed you and we're going to make it work forever!"
Or maybe it was something closer to a religious experience. "When we drove the shovels into the ground, I asked God to please give us an NHL team," says Glen Murray, the former mayor. A prayer shared by a whole city and province over the past 15 years that finally was answered.
Maclean's June 13, 2011