It's been a wild couple of months in Winnipeg with rumours about an NHL return developing into an understanding that it's not a matter of if, but when. Very quietly, the league worked on a backup plan for its ailing franchises and it appears the Manitoba capital surpassed Kansas City as the area of choice. (Let's leave a second team in southern Ontario out of this discussion. Should that happen, it will be an expansion team rather than a relocation.)
Sources say the purchase price would be $165 million and it appears as if the provincial government has a financial stake in this. Should that be true, reaction could be interesting since it's been criticized for putting up $105 million in grants and loans towards the Winnipeg Blue Bombers' new stadium.
There are accusations that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is using Winnipeg as leverage against Phoenix, but I honestly don't think that's the case here.
Rather, Bettman and deputy Bill Daly realized the NHL could not afford another lame-duck season in Arizona. Their preference remains for the Coyotes to stay, but not under league control. Bettman also needs a "victory" in Canada and jerking around this fanbase certainly wouldn't be it.
The NHL worked hard to keep this story quiet and you can certainly understand why. (There is some belief that even the executive committee wasn't informed until things were about to break.) Phoenix is having a remarkable season. The league couldn't have asked for a better scenario to try and save that franchise. If fans heard there was a done deal to move, it could certainly ruin momentum. That's why, even with its public denials, the NHL is quietly letting everyone know Winnipeg is, at best, Plan C in this case.
It's also why True North is denying the story. The Battle with Balsillie proved the league likes it better when you fly under the radar.
The Big Question
To me, there is one question Jets fans really need to ask: if/when it happens, how will the team be run? That's being asked around the NHL, too.
Even though 99.9 per cent of us would love to see some kind of return to Winnipeg, you don't need to be a geography major to recognize the limitations. One person who knows the city well says "there must be a willingness to see the team as a kind of charity. Businesses must look at it as supporting a good cause as opposed to a money maker."
The six current Canadian teams are revenue powerhouses, especially with the dollar's surge. Toronto is the highest-grossing club in the country with revenues believed to be in the $200-million range. Ottawa and Edmonton are at the lower end, estimated at $90 million. Can Winnipeg reach that threshold? It's unlikely, although the city should easily surpass Phoenix's total. (One source said the Coyotes brought in just $31 million last season.)
There is also serious doubt they could be a big spender. That's what I would worry about if I was a fan. The other six Canadian teams are willing to go to the cap. Would the Jets? Let's say, for argument's sake, the Coyotes did move north. There are some big roster decisions to be made. This summer, Zbynek Michalek, who leads the team in ice time and plays against the opponents' best players, is an unrestricted free agent. Also in search of new deals are Scottie Upshall, Lee Stempniak, Matthew Lombardi, Martin Hanzal and Wojtek Wolski. Next year, your Vezina/Hart Trophy candidate is due for an extension.
Every team must make choices, yes, but it's not fun to be the Blue Jays praying for one miracle season against the Yankees and Red Sox. The good news is that a Jets fan knows the NHL is a real possibility. You're a prospective member of the club now - a welcome guest.
1. If not Phoenix, then who? Remember that seven-year, no-movement agreement Balsillie wanted no part of in Pittsburgh? Atlanta's runs out on March 31, 2011. Looking around the league, you'd think that would be the only potential dance partner at this point.
2. The one good thing about Graham James' pardon coming to light: The person who approved it is going to be in BIG trouble. What an unbelievable, abominable decision.
3. A number of you wrote/tweeted to say how much you enjoyed the Russia features. Wanted to mention some people who deserve credit for their roles. I wasn't sure this was a serious possibility, but executive producer Sherali Najak really pushed for it. You're now familiar with Alyonka Larionov. Rob McDerment, who produces Inside Hockey, also travelled to Russia. Alex Sergeev, Jason Murdoch, John Weedmark, Jeff Shelegy and Ryan Ferguson edited. Mark Punga drove a long way to shoot the John Grahame interview. And I can't forget Sasha, our Russian cameraman, even though I think he hated us.
4. After watching the second piece, one NHL coach said he had a better understanding of why it's so hard to reach Russian players. He added it takes them longer to trust people than any other nationality. I didn't realize that.
5. Are all of these goaltending struggles happening because they are not allowed to dress like the Michelin Man anymore?
6. If the Flyers miss the playoffs, they won't be happy with Alexander Medvedev, who wouldn't let Robert Esche leave St. Petersburg. And Esche really wanted to help Paul Holmgren.
7. How to be a good teammate, part I: When Bobby Butler joined the Senators last Monday in Washington, he hadn't even met the team before receiving a dinner invitation from Mike Fisher.
8. Part II: When Ryan O'Byrne tripped and almost scored on his own net last Saturday, Hal Gill calmed him down by laughing and saying, "You might be surprised to know I've almost done that once or twice." I've been told a few times that Gill does not get enough credit for being an incredible teammate.
9. The Olympics have moved Ryan Miller into a new stratosphere of stardom. Mike Gilbert, the Sabres director of public relations, said that when Elton John and Billy Joel played HSBC Arena last month, Elton John told him, "You've got a heck of a goalie here." Actor James Woods was in the dressing room after a game when Miller went up to say, 'Hi.' Apparently, Miller was floored when Woods recognized him instead.
10. I know Capitals fans are apoplectic about RJ Umberger's comments - "A good defensive team is going to beat them [in the playoffs"" - but there's no point. Until Washington wins playing that style, there are going to be skeptics.
11. A lot of debate about Alain Vigneault's decision to leave Roberto Luongo in for eight goals against the Kings. Years ago, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston left David Wells in for 13 runs one start because the bullpen was exhausted. Gaston went to the mound and told Wells the team needed him to take the hit. Wells did, without complaint. He understood. With the Canucks needing Andrew Raycroft one night later, Luongo had to eat it just like Wells did.
12. It's tough to get out of Vigneault's doghouse, though. Will Shane O'Brien get a legit chance to make amends? Kyle Wellwood and Pavol Demitra entered and have never really left.
13. Glen Sather told The New York Post's Larry Brooks that the Rangers had a handshake deal with Len Barrie for Steven Stamkos last year. Stamkos was to be traded for "two or three from a wish list that featured Michael Del Zotto, Evgeny Grachev, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Dan Girardi." But Barrie was vetoed by Oren Koules and Brian Lawton.
14. Meanwhile, Lawton, trying to show he's boss, fires Wes Walz and brings in good buddy Jim Johnson to assist Rick Tocchet on the bench. Of course, he doesn't tell Tocchet until it's too late. Now with the Lightning in a total freefall, Lawton sends Johnson back to AHL Norfolk. What a gong show. When do you think new owner Jeff Vinik cleans house? Next Monday? Tuesday?
15. Brooks also reported that Chris Pronger's presence was an enormous problem in Philadelphia. Pronger is an alpha male, for sure. He demands a lot of attention, unleashes his opinions and can be very hard on teammates. But the problem in Philly appears to be different pockets of players with different agendas. It's bigger than Pronger and must be addressed in the off-season.
16. If you're looking for a good young player, Philly and Boston could both be interested in moving one this summer - at the right price. Both of those teams are going to have to change their mix.
17. Looking at their salary cap situation, I'm particularly curious to see how the Flyers will address their goaltending issues without moving Jeff Carter (UFA next summer) and/or Claude Giroux (RFA next summer).
18. How to tell if the Montreal Canadiens are forechecking well? The first guy goes in hard and they force teams to go up the middle, Kirk Muller says.
19. Anyone doubting the value of training camp should talk to Tom Pyatt of the Canadiens. He really won over Jacques Martin, surprising the coach with a strong sense of defensive responsibility. With 42 seconds left in a 1-0 game at Philly last Friday, Martin threw him out there with Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.
20. You have to give Sabres owner Tom Golisano credit. After butchering negotiations with Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, he's locked up Ryan Miller, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville. Golisano has learned sports requires some different principles than the business world.
21. It didn't get a ton of play, but Ilya Kovalchuk did a lot for his reputation by passing up an empty net to set up Brian Rolston's 700th NHL point.
22. Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal suggested an interesting deal: Mike Ribeiro for Sheldon Souray. It's my problem for your problem, but that's what happens with big contracts in a cap world. Both teams would like to get rid of those players.
23. Is this our last week to watch Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya?
24. Someone asked Rangers coach John Tortorella if he thought about starting Alex Auld during one of the two games in Florida. "No, why would I?" he said.
25. Lindy Ruff joked that the toughest thing about coaching at the Olympics was having four coaches because there'd be 2-2 ties in arguments. "Next time, there should be an odd number," he said.
26. Been very surprised at some of the venom directed at the Avalanche for their late-season falter. Obviously, they'd like to make the playoffs, but some perspective is in order. They've overachieved beyond belief.
27. What to make of this Gretzky/Hull/Modano Dallas report? Sounds like Hull wants to buy the team and asked Gretzky to get involved. He has said previously he won't do anything before the situation with money owed from Phoenix is resolved.
28. Too bad the Carolina Hurricanes gave up that crushing goal to Erik Karlsson with 11 seconds left in regulation on Thursday night. If they'd held on, I think they would have really taken a run at the eighth spot during this last week.
29. Credit to Cory Masisak for this one: Nicklas Backstrom of the Capitals scored his 31st Monday night against Boston. Peter Forsberg never had that many in an NHL season. (He scored 30 twice.)
30. Who would've guessed that Dan Carcillo would score the biggest goal of Philly's season?
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