Winnipeg's NHL team still faces obstacles

While fans in Winnipeg are celebrating the return of the National Hockey League to their city, the work is not done — not by a long shot.
After a 15-year wait, the City of Winnipeg will finally have an NHL franchise again. (Jacques Bossinot/Canadian Press)

It's a day Winnipeg has been waiting for since the Jets left the city 15 years ago.

In front of a packed news conference, True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd. — comprised of Canadian billionaire David Thomson and local businessman Mark Chipman — announced on Tuesday that it has finally purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and will move the team to Manitoba for the start of the 2011-12 season.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was also in attendance, along with throngs of cheering fans outside the building.

Chipman said the deal was being worked out overnight and early into the morning, and no name has been chosen.

The purchase price is believed to be a reported $170 million US, with $60 million going to the NHL as part of a relocation fee.

But the work is not done — not by a long shot.

The sale and relocation of the franchise still needs approval from members of the NHL's board of governors, who are expected to vote on June 21.

At this point, the agreement is only conditional and the governors need to see a longer term season-ticket commitment from Winnipeg.

"This is the most poignant point: we get to be back in a place we wished we hadn't left in 1996," said Bettman.

"The best way for our fans here in Winnipeg to celebrate the opportunity is to buy season tickets. Selling 13,000 season tickets is the best message to send to the NHL's board of governors before they meet on June 21, and to be candid, this isn't going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night.

"There is no doubt that NHL hockey has tremendous support here and we know we've had tremendous support in Atlanta. The fans in both cities have been through a lot in the past several weeks and hopefully everyone is now in a position to move forward."

No time to waste

The franchise has no time to waste.

Dubbed the "Drive for 13,000," True North president Jim Ludlow said the ticket drive begins Wednesday and emphasized the importance to reach the 13,000 threshold prior to June 21.

Hockey fans hoping to land season tickets can go to

Season tickets will be offered in seven packages: the first two require a five-year commitment, three to five entail a four-year pledge, while six and seven involve a three-year obligation.

On average, tickets will cost $82, ranging from $129 in the lower bowl to $39 in the upper section of the MTS Centre.

"We estimate this process will taking eight to 10 weeks to complete," said Ludlow.

There is also the matter of sustainability.

With operating costs and salaries growing at a rapid pace back when Winnipeg had an NHL team in 1996 — not to mention a lagging Canadian dollar — Barry Shenkarow, who owned the Jets, sold the team to Phoenix businessmen Steven Gluckstern, Richard Burke and Jerry Colangelo as no viable local group stepped up to save the hockey club.

The franchise moved to Phoenix the following season and was renamed the Coyotes.

The MTS Centre, which True North owns and operates with its Manitoba Moose of the AHL as the main tenant, opened the arena in 2004 at cost of $133.5 million, including $40.5 million in public money. The arena seats a little more than 15,000 — 1,159 fewer than the Nassau Coliseum where the New York Islanders play — and can hold 46 private suites.

But the limited seating capacity further adds credence to True North's desire to sell so many season tickets.

"What they are basically saying is 'put your money where your mouth is and show us that this is not just a honeymoon of one year. We want you to commit to multiple years to show us that this market is ready and willing to be an NHL market again,'" said's Scott Morrison.

"And that reaction will be important to the True North people and ultimately to the board of governors when it comes to their vote."

As for the Moose, True North is ending its affiliation with the Vancouver Canucks. The AHL club will now be the farm team of the new Winnipeg franchise. Chipman said a decision on where the Moose will play next year will be made shortly.

Front office future

Another uncertain aspect is the future of Atlanta's front office staff. Don Waddell was the Thrashers' longtime general manager until he was booted upstairs to team president, while Rick Dudley has been pulling GM duties since 2010.

Chipman said he hasn't spoken with Dudley but has talked with senior vice-president of True North Craig Heisinger — a candidate to head Winnipeg's new NHL franchise as president.

But he said no role has been defined at this point.

Positive signs

There is positive news from the Conference Board of Canada, which came out with a study in early May.

According to the study, Winnipeg passes all four criteria in assessing the city's long-term outlook. The most important area is the surging Canadian dollar, which is above par in relation to the U.S.

The study also deemed Winnipeg, with a population of 750,000, big enough to support an NHL team.

In terms of income, Winnipeg ranks No. 5 among Canada's major cities. The jobless rate has dropped from 8.3 per cent when the Jets left in 1996 to five per cent in 2011. In addition, the average household income has jumped to $63,000.

Finally, when Shenkarow owned the team, a major part of his reasoning for dumping the Jets was a lack of major corporate sponsors. Today, Winnipeg has 30 major corporations, a number that exceeds both Edmonton and Ottawa, two cities with NHL clubs.

"The arena offers them some new revenue streams that didn't exist back in the day when they had the old Winnipeg Arena," said Morrison.

"The NHL economic system is different than it once was with the salary cap and the revenue sharing. So there's a lot of different components that people believe will help make this a success. Is it a slam dunk? Not exactly in the eyes of everyone, but a lot people think it has a better chance of succeeding this time around."