Profiles of the major investors and other movers and shakers behind the deal to bring an NHL team back to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence.
On the Winnipeg side, the major player has been a company called True North Sports and Entertainment. The company was created in 2001 by Winnipeg businessman Mark Chipman and other partners with the aim of building a new sports and entertainment venue in downtown Winnipeg that could revive the depressed commercial district and possibly attract an NHL team to the city.
The new 15,000-seat complex, named the MTS Centre, opened in 2004 and became the home of the Manitoba Moose, the AHL team Chipman had brought to Winnipeg after the Jets left in 1996. With that team, which had some of the strongest attendance numbers in the league, True North showed hockey could once again be a successful business venture in Winnipeg.
Billionaire and heir to the Thomson media fortune David Thomson got involved in True North through his family's real estate arm, Osmington Inc., which owned the land the MTS Centre was built on. Eventually, Thomson and Chipman bought out the other partners and became the sole owners of True North.
Mark Chipman: founder of True North Sports and Entertainment, the company that will own the new team and already owns its future home arena, the MTS Centre, which was built in 2004 to replace the Winnipeg Arena, where the Jets used to play and which was demolished in 2006. Chipman is president and chief executive of Megill-Stephenson Co. Ltd., a holding company started by his father, Robert Chipman, that owns several car dealerships.
The company also has stakes in the MTS Centre and the Manitoba Moose, the farm team for the Vancouver Canucks. The Moose were formerly part of the International Hockey League before Chipman brought the team to Manitoba from Minnesota following the Jets' departure in 1996. He successfully negotiated for the Moose and five other IHL teams to be accepted into the American Hockey League. The Moose have proven to be a big draw for the MTS Centre and have ranked near the top of the league for season and playoff attendance.
Chipman is director of the Hockey Canada Foundation and sits on the boards of various community organizations. He is married with three daughters and has two brothers, Stephen and Jeoffrey, who are also active in Winnipeg's business community and the family holdings. He earned a BA in economics and a law degree from the University of North Dakota. Prior to his return to Winnipeg, he worked as a lawyer in the U.S.
David Thomson: Chairman of Thomson Reuters, the media conglomerate founded by his grandfather, Roy, in 1934 and later run by his father, Kenneth. With an estimated net worth of $23 billion, Thomson was ranked first on Forbes magazine's 2011 list of Canadian billionaires and 17th in the world. Co-chairs the family's investment concern, Woodbridge, with brother Peter. Together with Chipman, owns True North Sports and Entertainment. Divorced with three children. Based in Toronto, Thomson has been more of a silent financial partner rather than being directly involved in negotiations over the NHL deal.
Negotiating for the Atlanta side has been Atlanta Spirit LLC. The ownership group has owned the Thrashers since 2004, when it purchased the team, along with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and the operating rights for Philips arena, from Turner Broadcasting System Inc. for $250 million US. While business and media mogul Ted Turner is not part of Atlanta Spirit, several of its members have links to him.
Atlanta Spirit LLC has officially been seeking a buyer since December 2010 for the financially troubled Thrashers, which have losses reportedly in the range of $20 million to $40 million per year. Numerous factors played into the team's less-than-stellar fiscal situation. Fan support was weak (the team ranked 28th in that department this season out of 30 NHL teams). There were squabbles within the ownership group, which wasn't overly keen on keeping the team for several years. The Thrashers' payroll was among the lowest in the league, and the team's performance on the ice was less than impressive: it didn’t win a playoff game in 11 seasons.
The sale of the team to Winnipeg’s True North Sports and Entertainment comes about five months after Atlanta Spirit settled a lawsuit with a former member of the ownership group, Steve Belkin.
Members of the Atlanta Spirit group include:
- Bruce Levenson: Co-founder, along with Ed Peskowitz, of United Communications Group (UCG), a portfolio of professional business information companies.
- Michael Gearon: Founded the telecommunications enterprise Gearon Communications in 1990 at the age of 25; sold the company in 1998.
- Ed Peskowitz: Co-founder with Levenson of UCG.
- Rutherford Seydel: Atlanta lawyer involved in the Atlanta Spirit’s real estate, franchising and business transactions. A son-in-law of Ted Turner and a director and vice-chairman of the Conservation Fund.
- Todd Foreman: Partner in UCG and a certified public accountant.
- Michael Gearon Sr.: Close friend of Ted Turner and former director of Turner Broadcasting; has spent three decades with the Atlanta Hawks. A real estate entrepreneur, he retired from business at age 37.
- Beau Turner: Ted Turner’s son and chairman of the board of trustees for the Turner Endangered Species Fund and fish and wildlife manager for Turner Enterprises Inc., the land holding group for the Turner family.
Gary Bettman: Bettman, 58, is commissioner of the National Hockey League. A lawyer from New York City, Bettman was a senior executive in the National Basketball Association before joining the NHL in 1993. NHL club owners hired him hoping he would expand the league's teams and increase hockey's TV exposure in the United States.
On his watch, the NHL grew from 24 to 30 teams, and two Canadian clubs, the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets, moved south of the border.
Bettman has, at times, been criticized for having an anti-Canadian bias. Those charges came after the relocation of the Jets and Nordiques in 1996 and were renewed in 2007 when Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie accused him of personally blocking the sale of the Nashville Predators, whom Balsillie tried unsuccessfully to relocate to Hamilton, Ont.
Even in the dark days following the Jets' relocation to Phoenix, Ariz., in 1996, when no one thought there was any chance of the NHL returning to Winnipeg, a small but dedicated group of fans was using the internet to build support for bringing a team back to the city.
These supporters used their platforms to passionately make the case that Winnipeg is a viable city to host an NHL team and surely feel no small measure of satisfaction now that that has actually come to pass.
One blogger, Darren Ford, started the site JetsOwner.com eight years ago and says he was called "wacky" by some for doing so. Now, he and other high-profile fans, such as Dave Minuk and Lauren Robb are valued points of reference on all things Jets.