Reality Check: NHL in Winnipeg

The Atlanta Thrashers' imminent move to Winnipeg has launched a million questions; What will the team be called? Is the arena up to code? How much will tickets cost? We explore the many issues.
There's still much to be decided about the NHL's return to Winnipeg, including whether the team would bring back the old Jets name and logo. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

It's now official. The Atlanta Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg. It's taken a long time to come to that decision, but there are still many questions to be answered and we've decided to to see if we can provide some guidance.   

What is True North Sports & Entertainment?

True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd., the new owner of the Thrashers, is a Winnipeg group led by local businessman Mark Chipman and Canadian billionaire David Thomson. The group has owned and operated the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League and the MTS Centre arena.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Chipman is the founder and chairman of True North, as well as the governor of the Moose hockey team.

Thomson is chairman of Thomson Reuters, one of the world's largest information and media companies. Forbes Magazine pegs his estimated net worth at $23 billion, which would make Thomson and his family the richest in Canada and 17th richest in the world.

Is Winnipeg's arena good enough for the NHL?

The new Winnipeg club will play at the MTS Centre, a multipurpose sports and entertainment arena that opened on Nov. 16, 2004, in the heart of the city’s downtown.

Built at a cost of $133.5 million, the MTS Centre has hosted several marquee sporting events and major concerts, including the Juno Awards, the Canadian Country Music Awards, the Tim Hortons Brier, the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship and the AHL All-Star Game.

The arena features 46 private suites and has a seating capacity of 15,015 for hockey games (it can hold up to 16,345 for concerts). Barring expansion, the hockey-seating capacity would be the lowest in the NHL, falling 1,159 short of the Islanders' Nassau Coliseum, which the team is desperately trying to replace.

How much will tickets cost?

We do know the details and if this franchise is going to get approved by the NHL's Board of Governors 13,000 tickets have to be sold and sold quickly.

The best seats  in the house will cost $5,805 per season and whoever plunks down their dough has to give a five-year guarantee.  There's also a $500 club membership fee. So the tickets over a five-year period come to $29,025, not including that membership fee. And that is for one ticket.

The cheap seats, and people who have been to games at the MTS Centre say there are no bad seats, will cost $1,755 per season.  There is a three-year commitment to those seats. That works out to $39 a game.

In comparison, the Oilers' average ticket price of $64.87 US (by October 2010 exchange rates) was the fifth-highest in the NHL and more than $10 above the league average, according to Team Marketing Report. The four teams ahead of Edmonton? Toronto ($115.96), Montreal ($86.44), Calgary ($66.68) and Vancouver ($65.20). The other Canadian-based club, Ottawa, ranks ninth ($59.74).

It seems that teams realize they can charge a premium to Canadian fans. Edmonton's estimated metropolitan population of 1.15 million is comparable to the 1.2 million of the Buffalo-Niagara area, considered a passionate U.S. hockey market. The Sabres' average ticket price last season was $36.43 — a little more than half the Oilers' average cost.

What will the team be called?

Seems like a no-brainer: the Jets brand carries plenty of nostalgic power, as recent opinion polls say and the choice of attire for Tuesday's celebration suggested. In a poll nearly 65 per cent of respondents chose "Winnipeg Jets" over a variety of other choices to name the team.

The owners will say they have not yet decided what to call the team, they've been too busy getting the deal done.

But allow us to indulge in some speculation from a pure money-making perspective: many Winnipeggers held on to their old Jets gear, so why not compel them to buy new stuff by introducing a fresh name and logo? Manitoba Moose, the moniker of Winnipeg's current AHL team, has been tossed around, and there has been talk that True North would want to connect an NHL team to the entire province.

There's bound to be some outcry, but remember how fans in Buffalo snapped up new merchandise bearing that horrible "slug" logo partly because they were so excited that the team had restored its traditional blue and gold colours? A few years later, the Sabres tapped into the public's pent-up desires again by reverting to their original bison-and-swords logo, and a lot of people reached into their wallets for that. Might Winnipeg's owners follow a similar strategy, holding back the old Jets brand for a few years in hopes of adding a payday down the road? At the very least, it's likely that a freshly stylized version of the Jets jersey would be released in an attempt to make the old stuff at least somewhat obsolete. Hey, it's a business.

Who owns the "Jets" namesake?

We know the NHL's return to Winnipeg was always in the hands of the league, but so to is the (former) team's moniker. For the Jets to resurface in namesake would also require the blessing of the NHL.

Turns out that the league somehow managed to gain ownership of the name after the franchise departed Winnipeg in 1996. As of this posting, True North said it hasn't 100 per cent decided on what the team will be named, presuming the sale goes through.

Some think the book is closed on the Jets and a new chapter and history should be created. Logistically, it might be easiest to carry on with the Moose name, or perhaps maybe a new nickname.

But if it's to be the Jets, they will have to ask the NHL for permission.

Will players like it in Winnipeg?

Everyone has different tastes. Some may miss the vibrant club scene of Atlanta, others may find peace in the relative quiet of southern Manitoba. But there's one inescapable fact: the average January high temperature in Winnipeg is minus-11. In Atlanta it's plus-11.

Mark Osborne, who played 80 games for the Jets in the early-1990s, says he enjoyed his "cup of coffee" in Winnipeg, but he also remembers the cold.

"We didn't have kids, but for the other guys the biggest challenge was dressing and undressing their kids," Osborne says with a chuckle.

Will there be changes in the front office?

Since hockey returned to Atlanta in 1999, the Thrashers have underachieved to say the least. During their 12-year existence, the Thrashers have made the playoffs just once — they were swept in the first round by the New York Rangers in 2007.

That may not cut it in Winnipeg. With the expectation of higher ticket prices and a small sponsorship base, the franchise will be under heavy pressure to put a winning product on the ice quickly. Don Waddell was the Thrashers’ long-time general manager until he was booted upstairs to team president, while Rick Dudley has been pulling GM duties since 2010.

Because of the need to make the move from Atlanta to Winnipeg as smooth as possible, one scenario would be for the True North owners to keep the Dudley-Waddell duo intact in the short term. But make no mistake: changes will likely happen early should the franchise struggle. Another thing to keep in mind is that, with any ownership change, it’s common for the new ownership group to bring in its own people. So don’t be surprised if a new president — an option being perhaps Moose GM and senior VP of True North Craig Heisinger — is hired quickly and decides to clean house.

What happens to the Manitoba Moose?

True North owns and operates the Moose, but there are rumblings the group will sell the franchise once it lands an NHL club. Regardless, the Moose’s future isn’t in Winnipeg.  A leading destination could well be Thunder Bay, Ont., as the city is doing a feasibility study on a new multiplex facility that would need approval from taxpayers. While the shovels for the facility, whose cost could run north of $100 million, have yet to hit the ground, Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs has already been in discussions with different cities in hopes of luring an AHL team.

Another potential landing spot for the Moose is St. John’s. The AHL severed ties with the city in 2008, but the management of Mile One Centre has been attempting to bring back a franchise.

Is there enough money in Winnipeg to support an NHL team?

There’s not a lot of concrete evidence on this, but the Conference Board of Canada has taken a shot at it. Here’s what board members Glen Hodgson and Mario Lefebvre came up with.

It makes sense when they write that when it comes to supporting a team, the size of the market is crucial. It means more bums in the seats, more sweaters sold and more sponsorship opportunities. In a general sense, Lefebvre says an NHL team needs a population of 800,000. As a comparison, a CFL team needs 225,000, and don’t forget that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have a secure spot in Winnipeg’s sporting scene.  In February 2011, the Winnipeg area was home for just under 754,000 people.

Population numbers don’t tell the whole story. You need people who have money in their pockets to buy those sweaters and to purchase those season tickets. Lefebvre’s study shows Winnipeg’s income per capita rivals Vancouver, so this is good for the city.

A successful team also needs a strong corporate base because this is where the money comes from to pay for those all-important luxury boxes. The last time around, this was a weakness for the Winnipeg team. As the Conference Board report says, 30 of the country's 800 largest corporations were in Winnipeg in 2009. That number seems small, but on the other hand, Ottawa has only 19 of those companies and the Senators' bank account is going strong.  

What the report says is the best thing going for a Winnipeg franchise is the muscle of the Canadian dollar, which is now floating above par relative to the U.S. greenback. This levels the playing field with the NHL's American franchises and may be the single most important element that makes it feasible for a franchise to exist in Winnipeg.