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True North expected to trigger campaign for NHL season tickets

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WINNIPEG - Time to put up or shut up.

The next time we hear from True North Sports and Entertainment it likely won’t be to announce the return of the NHL to our city but will instead be a call for Winnipeggers to demonstrate their ability to support an NHL team.

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Does this city want an NHL franchise and is it willing to pay for it? Are Winnipeggers willing to buy tickets at NHL prices with a long-term financial commitment?

A Winnipeg franchise is not a guaranteed economic success in the minds of many NHL types and it’s a certainty the league’s board of governors will tell True North, should they get to the point where they are prepared to relocate to Winnipeg, to go to its constituents and ask for a vote of confidence.

Such a cash call could come as early as next week.

True North, in order to satisfy the board of governors, will likely ask Winnipeggers to commit to purchasing season tickets for a minimum of three seasons.

It’s unknown how long the community will have to respond but count on a week to sell the vast majority of the MTS Centre’s 15,000 seats.

A poor response from the community would likely scuttle True North’s attempt to land an NHL franchise.

"There is nothing in the constitution on this," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly in an email to the Free Press on Thursday. "Certainly, one of the things the board has to have satisfied is that the market is capable of supporting an NHL team at NHL prices. But that can be done in a variety of ways, depending on the market. There is no one ‘cookie cutter’ approach here."

It’s believed the NHL and True North are working on a deal for partners Mark Chipman and David Thomson to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes from the league should the NHL fail to conclude a deal to keep the team in Arizona.

The NHL bought the team out of bankruptcy in 2009 and has been trying to sell it ever since. The league appears to be at an impasse in Arizona with no buyer willing to pay their asking price of $170 million to keep the team in Glendale, Ariz., at Arena.

Chipman and Thomson are prepared to meet the NHL’s asking price and move the team to Winnipeg to play out of the MTS Centre.

The league has been working with Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer to keep the team in Glendale but the deal has stalled. The NHL has been patient but appears close to imposing a deadline on the transaction or moving on altogether.

For Winnipeg, the moment of truth may be close at hand.

There will likely be only one crack at gaining an NHL franchise and no time for hesitation if the city truly wants its beloved Jets or an NHL team of another name.

The bald truth of the matter is we are viewed as failures in the NHL boardroom and will have to prove otherwise before they determine that we can be welcomed back into the world’s finest hockey league.

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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