Winnipeg building a case for NHL consideration
Mayor Sam Katz, fans believe 15,000-seat MTS Centre ideal for market
By the end of June, Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz might be ready to have another conversation with National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman.
On June 22, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Redfield T. Baum will preside over a hearing in Phoenix to decide whether the Coyotes can be relocated.
"If there's an opportunity [to secure an NHL franchise] … at that point in time, we would definitely have some conversation with Gary Bettman," Katz told CBCSports.ca over the phone from Winnipeg.
Ever since the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix following the 1995-96 season, there has been plenty of talk of a team returning to the city.
There was further buzz on May 5 when Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie offered to pay $212.5 million US to purchase the Coyotes on the condition that the bankrupt team relocate to southern Ontario.
At the time, it was reported that Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes had lost more than $200 million since 2001, including a combined $74 million in 2007 and 2008.
"I think this is the beginning [of the NHL returning to Winnipeg]," said Katz, who talked to Bettman in 2005 about Winnipeg as a potential NHL site. "I'm surprised it took that long for someone to wake up and say, 'this is insane, I'm not going to continue to lose $25 million, $35 million [US] a year.' And I think you'll see a few more [teams] coming [forward] in the very near future.
"There's no doubt that Canadian cities, like Winnipeg, like Hamilton, will have to be serious contenders [to get a team]," said Katz, adding Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the only two provinces currently experiencing growth. "By the same token, you need an individual or a group of people ready to put up [the money]."
Enter Mark Chipman, chairman of Winnipeg-based True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., which owns the 15,003-seat MTS Centre and its primary tenant, the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Potential owner in town
Katz has said the major obstacle to moving a team to Winnipeg is True North, meaning a new ownership group or existing owner would either have to merge with the local company or strike some other form of a deal.
Chipman, who was part of a group that attempted to keep the Jets from moving, declined to comment, when contacted by CBCSports.ca, about the potential of a NHL team returning to Winnipeg.
Asked when he would be willing to speak on the subject, he said when there is something worth talking about.
"I'm not going to commit myself to any timeline," he said. "I don't know that I'll ever, frankly, have anything to say about it. I don't take any delight in telling you this, but I'm not talking about it."
Both Katz and Darren Ford, the founder of The Return of the Jets Campaign, believe Chipman would be ideal to spearhead a group of investors in a NHL team.
Ford, who split Jets season tickets with his mom, dad and brother as a youngster, described Chipman as a well-grounded individual and smart businessman.
"They've done their homework, they just do it quietly," said Ford of True North and Chipman, whose family operates a number of car dealerships in Manitoba. "There's no benefit to jumping up and down in the media and giving quotes. I'm a booster, that's my job."
Earlier this month, Winnipegger Ken Morrissette began the Winnipeg Jets Fan Challenge Facebook group. Over the weekend, he organized an event called "We heard you Mr. Bettman … now hear us!" which coincided with the Hockey Night in Canada Play On! street hockey tournament in Winnipeg.
Bettman excited the optimistic hockey fans in Winnipeg recently with an email he sent to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly dated April 4 of this year.
Fans lend their support
The email, which was filed in a U.S. bankruptcy court, read: "If this team [the Coyotes] had to move, it should first be offered to Winnipeg."
"There is a team coming back to Winnipeg someday," Morrissette told local reporters, "and maybe we can help get it a little sooner. I just thought I'd do my part to get the fans together."
Ford, a sales rep for a wine and spirits company, reached out to Winnipeg hockey fans in 2003 by launching a website, jetsowner.com, which averages 1,500 to 2,000 hits per day.
That number spikes to 7,000 or 8,000, Ford said, on days like May 5 when the Balsillie/Coyotes news broke. The website offers fans a history of the Jets and the latest NHL news related to Winnipeg and the financial state of the league's existing teams.
It also includes a section where Ford breaks down what he believes it would cost a fan to attend an NHL game at MTS Centre and what revenue could be generated by a team.
"I think since the Jets left there's been a hangover and talk of when do we get them back," Ford told CBCSports.ca. "I think the floodgates are opening soon. Just about everybody wants [an NHL team in Winnipeg] but some people just don't believe it."
Katz said the opening of MTS Centre made Winnipeg a player again. The five-year-old facility — the third busiest in Canada and 19th in the world, according to the Los Angeles-based Pollstar entertainment magazine — boasts 50 luxury suites that seat between 16 and 30.
Ford admitted selling 18,000 or 19,000 seats per game is unrealistic in the Winnipeg market but noted 15,000 would work.
"The city of Atlanta has four million people," said Ford. "We're 700,000 people but we're a bigger hockey market. What's the better market for a hockey team? The economics work."