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Winnipeg Jets Return From Atlanta: The Chance For Hockey's Revival

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WINNIPEG JETS
Winnipeg Jets are set to return, but will they thrive? | AP

UPDATED: This time, the Winnipeg Jets will get a fair shake from the get-go.

True North Sports and Entertainment announced Tuesday they have finalized the agreement to purchase the Altanta Thrashers and relocate the team to Winnipeg, giving Canada its seventh NHL team.

"I'm excited beyond words," said Chipman, chairman of True North, whose group includes Canadian billionaire David Thomson.

His words set off an immediate roar of approval from fans gathered at a popular market promenade at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers called The Forks.

(READ the full story on the press conference here)

Winnipeg has been without NHL hockey since the Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996. Atlanta says goodbye to an NHL franchise for the second time. The Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary in 1980.

Tom McVie believes the new Jets will have much more success – on and off the ice – than they did after entering the National Hockey League in 1979-80.

Now, like then, the Jets are an existing team – in the form of the soon-to-be-relocated Thrashers. McVie, who was Winnipeg’s coach that first season, says this time around, the Jets won’t be decimated like they were after having qualified for five Avco Cup finals – and won three – during the seven-season existence of the World Hockey Association.

The NHL had imposed something called a reclamation draft as the remnants of the upstart WHA merged with the more established circuit. Essentially, the reclamation draft was a dispersal draft under which Winnipeg players’ rights reverted to their previous NHL clubs. As a result, after winning the last Avco Cup under McVie, the Jets lost all but three of their players and went from the proverbial penthouse to the outhouse in league standings.

“Maybe it would be a little better now, but in those years, I really believe, it was worse than starting out (from scratch),” says McVie. “There were a lot of players from different organizations that were on the tail end of a contract. The other teams in the league wanted rid of a lot of these players, so Hartford, Edmonton, Quebec and us ended up with a lot of the tail-end players that, maybe, didn’t want to play there.”

Times have changed. The NHL got away with its unfair move because the Jets, arguably the WHA’s most successful franchise, needed a league in which to play. But the same thing won’t happen again – because this time an existing NHL club is merely moving from a weak Southeastern U.S. hockey market, which has failed for the second time, to a strong Canadian one that does not have the same off-ice deficiencies.

And, because this time the NHL wants Winnipeg just as much as Winnipeg wants it. These Jets will get to keep the players the Atlanta franchise has developed. The new Jets do not face the same rebuilding job that then general manager John Ferguson did in their earlier days in the NHL.

“It’s like building a home or building a building,” says McVie about building a hockey club. “Before you can build a real good building, you’ve gotta get rid of all the debris and get a good foundation and then build your home or build your building. I really believe that it sets the franchise back when you take all these players in because they’ve got contracts. Some of them were decent players, but that’s not how you build a hockey team. You build through the draft and you build (the team). What happens is, you’ve gotta run the course of two or three years to get rid of those contracts, which Fergie did. Then he did a wonderful job later by (drafting) Dale Hawerchuk and getting all these draft choices.”

McVie believes the Thrashers have already laid the foundation.

“I certainly do,” he says. “I know that (general manager) Rick Dudley has done a wonderful job there and (president) Don Waddell, too. They’ve got some good players and they’ve got the foundation. That’s not an expansion team. That’s a pretty good hockey team. They went down (i.e. finished out of the playoffs) at the end, but they were really winning.”

YOUNG TALENT

The foundation includes winger Evander Kane, an emerging star who won Western Hockey League and Memorial Cup titles with the Vancouver Giants and also captured a gold medal with Canada’s world junior team. Only 19, Kane almost doubled his point total to 43 in 2010-11, his second season. Dustin Byfuglien provides a major offensive and defensive presence. He won a Stanley Cup in 2009-10 with Chicago as a winger and then returned to his former defence position and received strong consideration for a Norris Trophy nomination in 2010-11. He is part of a talented, but underrated defence corps that includes Ron Hainsey, Tobias Enstrom, Johnny Oduya, and Zach Bogosian.

Captain Andrew Ladd provides leadership and offensive ability, and starting goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, 23, is also star material.

The Jets also have a canny coach in Craig Ramsay, who won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and also reached the finals with Buffalo as a player in the mid-1970s.

The club’s biggest question marks are up front on the forward lines. After Ladd, defencemen Byfuglien and Enstrom finished second and third, respectively, in team scoring. Fortunately, the expendable players should be easy to trade, or buy out, because most are playing for low salaries (i.e. below $1 million per season) on long-term contracts – the kind that all clubs covet. And, Atlanta’s $38-million payroll was well below the salary cap, giving the Jets considerable signing flexibility.

STRONG OWNERSHIP, GOOD LOCATION

Jets owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson have deep pockets -- Thomson hails from one of the country’s (and world’s) wealthiest families. It also behooves them to sign a big-name player – just to prove that this is a different era and they are serious about giving the city a Stanley Cup contender.

Some have questioned whether the Jets can attract unrestricted free agents to Winnipeg’s cold, austere climate. But players who have played there don’t see why they can’t.

“I think it’s a great city to play in,” says Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa, who was with Manitoba Moose of the AHL. “I had the pleasure of playing there for a year and a half. It’s a great hockey city. They love their hockey. They’re very passionate. They treat you extremely well. It’s an underrated city, I think, as far as living there and visiting it. Obviously, it’s cold and all that, but there’s a lot going on.”

Former NHLer Dave Babych, who spent his first six NHL seasons in the Manitoba capital in the early 1980s, says “a job is still a job.” While some might balk at the chance to go there, others will see it as an opportunity to advance their careers.

“It’s not like it's some sort of death sentence going to Winnipeg,” says Babych, now a Canucks scout. “Would your wife rather be in Florida? I don’t know. Some might. Some might not. When we came here to Vancouver, a beautiful city, I remember the first year, in April, it rained every day. My wife would be phoning me on the road, going: ‘It’s raining again. I can’t take the kids out.’ I go: ‘Well, shouldn’t we learn to deal with it?’ Now, they have raincoats. It’s pretty simple. But it’s a gorgeous place. Winnipeg is a special place, too. People are terrific out there. I think it’s just a matter of: People will be miserable wherever they are.”

CENTRAL ARENA

In a roundabout way, that brings us to Winnipeg’s chances for profitability – let alone survival. An NHL club’s financial success depends largely on control of a centrally-located arena. (For proof, see the Coyotes and their squabbles with the suburban City of Glendale, Arizona.) As owners of the MTS Centre, Chipman and Thomson, who currently own the Manitoba Moose, have the control they need, through their company True North Sports LLC, and can derive all sorts of spin-off revenues.

The MTS Centre is not quite up to NHL specifications, but it is much more modern than the since-demolished Winnipeg Arena with its huge picture of the Queen looking down, and the Manitoba government has already indicated that it will pay for upgrades. With the renovations covered by taxpayers who are unlikely to complain, the new Jets are in position to profit from their arena like the old ones never could – through such avenues as increased arena naming rights fees, in-arena sponsorship, and larger food and beverage contracts.

MORE TV REVENUE

The real money, however, is in TV rights – and the new Jets are poised to pounce on opportunities that did not exist during the days of the old Jets. Some observers have questioned whether Hockey Night in Canada will show many Jets games, but the Jets still stand to gain from regional TV rights deals with Canadian cable sports networks, which weren’t as prolific during the Jets’ first era as they are now.

Thomson’s family holds a part stake in TSN, which will undoubtedly do all it can to televise Jets games nationally or regionally.

Both TSN and Rogers Sportsnet also have fledgling secondary networks that could thrive by showing more NHL games. So the networks have more of a vested interest, especially when Canadian teams play each other. A seventh Canadian team may also drive up overall rights fees and grant the Jets a larger stake of league-shared TV revenues.

Pat Quinn, who has held coaching and management positions at three Canadian teams, says the Jets will be better off because of the expanded TV opportunities. As a general rule, the NHL retains national TV revenues and shares them evenly among all clubs while individual teams keep regional revenues.

Recalling his days on the NHL Board of Governors, he says Canadian teams suffered in the early-to-mid 1990s because revenues from Hockey Night in Canada and TSN – which only broadcast in this country – were shared by all teams and TV money generated in U.S. cities, notably New York, only went to their respective teams.

“The television money is a little bit better,” says Quinn. “It’s structured better to help teams out. I don’t know how high they can raise their ticket prices. It’s going to be interesting to see what the market will hold there. They’ll have some challenges, but I do believe the city certainly is ready in terms of its mental state.”

LESSON LEARNED

He and others interviewed say Jets fans have learned their lesson after losing something that gives the city an international identity. These days, the NHL also helps small-market NHL teams through revenue-sharing where the haves – namely Canadian and Original Six clubs – help the have-nots, as long as they sell enough tickets to qualify. It’s a given that, at least for the first few years, the Jets will meet the threshold.

Quinn and others attribute most of the Jets’ difficulties in the mid-1990s to the then-weak Canadian dollar – not sub-par play. Clubs north of the 49th parallel operate in Canadian dollars but pay player salaries – their biggest expense – in U.S. bucks. Now, the loonie is wielding much more power.

Thanks to the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL also has its aforementioned salary cap which did not exist in the Jets’ earlier days. According to the Conference Board of Canada, these factors that we’ve talked about – equal access to new and existing talent, revenue-sharing, a salary cap and compensation for inequities in the exchange rate – determine whether the rink is level for all franchises.

“The answers to these conditions will help determine whether a given league has found the right mix of business and on-the-field competitive conditions, and whether a level playing field has truly been established for all its franchises,” states a Conference Board report released earlier this month.

Accordingly, the Conference Board also concludes, in another report released this month, Winnipeg now has what it takes to compete financially with the rest of the NHL. (So does Quebec City, but that’s another story.)

FAN BASE
Winnipeg’s metropolitan area now has a population of approximately 800,000, which is the required benchmark for all Canadian NHL clubs to succeed. The Board warns that Winnipeg may need a larger population because the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL also drain ticket dollars. However, the Board does not even mention all the fans from Saskatchewan, Minnesota and Western Ontario that are likely to attend Jets games. Nor does it point out the significance of Winnipeg receiving a steady influx of immigrants annually.

And, as the Board notes, the city’s per capita income level has also moved to fifth in 2009 from sixth in the 1990s.

The Conference Board forecasts Canadian NHL clubs will not have to pay an exchange-rate premium for the foreseeable future. But it also warns that Winnipeg will have a more difficult time selling luxury boxes because it has fewer corporate head offices than other Canadian cities. But Winnipeg’s 30 head offices still outnumber those found in Edmonton and Ottawa.

ICONIC BRAND

Then there’s the iconic Jets brand, which evokes memories of the time Bobby Hull defected to the Jets from the Chicago Blackhawks and Swedish stars Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson launched a European invasion. More importantly, the Jets logo alone offers opportunities to sell merchandise across North America, if not globally.

Chipman and Thomson have indicated they may prefer to retain the Manitoba Moose name because they have built it up at considerable cost. But, at best, the Moose name is of regional interest only, and fans have launched a campaign to retain the Jets name. The NHL owns the Jets intellectual property and would likely want compensation before giving it up.

However, if the NHL is going to get a reported $60-million relocation fee from the Jets, commissioner Gary Bettman, who touted Winnipeg when he was fighting through the Phoenix fiasco, will have to give up something in return.

“Maybe it’s a sentimental thing, but I think the Winnipeg people live and die with the Jets,” says McVie. “I think, myself, that there would be nothing better than to have the Winnipeg Jets back in the National Hockey League.”

Rick Bowness, who spent nine seasons with the Jets organization as a player and coach and rates it as one of the best times of his career for himself and his family, is not convinced the name will matter tradition-wise, because most of today’s players never went into Winnipeg. But he is certain the Jets will succeed this time round.

“It’s a great market and it’s going to be a fantastic crowd there,” says Bowness, now Vancouver’s associate coach. “They’re going to have great ownership (and) great management. It’s great to see another Canadian city in our league – without a doubt.”

With a file from The Canadian Press

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