Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Province gets behind bid for NHL team

True North asks for help with debt on MTS Centre, is likely to get it

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The game-plan to return NHL hockey to Winnipeg is banking on a financial assist from the Manitoba government, the Free Press has learned.

While negotiations are underway between True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. and the ownership group of the Atlanta Thrashers, a critical part of Winnipeg's pitch involves securing help from the Selinger government.

True North, which owns the MTS Centre, is looking to the province to help it manage the debt load it carries on the downtown arena in order to free up money to help pay for the relocation of the NHL team to Winnipeg.

A source said that request from True North is being studied by the province and in all likelihood will be accepted. The value of the request -- and if it involves a low or no-interest loan -- is not known.

"The building is a public asset," said a source explaining why the province is interested in an arrangement that involves aid to the MTS Centre. "It will never move."

Premier Greg Selinger has refused to comment on the matter and his officials have said the deal between True North and the Thrashers is a private business matter.

Selinger's staff have said True North president Jim Ludlow and Manitoba Moose owner Mark Chipman are the only people who can comment on the negotiations. Through a spokesman, both have declined interview requests.

The source said it's possible an announcement on the sale of the Thrashers to Winnipeg could come as early as next week if no other potential buyer steps up and the NHL gives the green light for the team to move.

The province will not contribute any funding or concessions towards an NHL team itself with an Oct. 4 election looming and the funding fiasco surrounding efforts to keep the Winnipeg Jets fresh in many peoples' minds 15 years later. The NDP is also loath to be lumped into the circus recently played out in the Arizona desert where Glendale's city council agreed to pay the NHL $25 million for arena operating costs for next season to keep the Phoenix Coyotes around for at least one more year.

The Jets moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996 because of financial problems -- problems that at one stage saw young children emptying their piggy banks to save the team.

If Chipman does land the Thrashers, the NDP is poised to take credit for its role in getting the MTS Centre built almost a decade ago on the former Eaton's store site.

The 15,000-seat arena opened in the fall of 2004 at a cost of $133.5 million. Private-sector investors put up $93 million, with the province, city and Ottawa contributing $40.5 million.

With the Manitoba Moose as the anchor tenant, the new arena is now one of the busiest buildings of its kind in North America, also hosting top-drawer rock concerts and other events.

The province and Ottawa also contributed $11.7 million in joint funding towards the construction of the MTS Iceplex near Assiniboia Downs. True North spent $14.9 million towards the project, which officially opened last September and is ideally suited as a practice facility for a Winnipeg-based NHL team.

This week the Free Press reported the NHL is working on two schedule drafts for next season -- one with a team in Winnipeg and another with the Thrashers in Atlanta.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2011 B1

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