Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Businesses already counting $ if NHL hockey returns

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MEMBERS of the city's business community are celebrating like they won the Stanley Cup over reports of the imminent return of an NHL franchise to Winnipeg.

The prospect of the Atlanta Thrashers' roster of millionaire hockey players moving to Winnipeg, plus 15,000 fans flocking downtown to see their every game, has officials barely able to contain their excitement.

Perhaps the greatest economic benefit will be the new and improved international street cred the NHL will create for the city.

"The Winnipeg Jets, when they were here, truly put Winnipeg on the map. The international reputation for Winnipeg is paramount," said Marina James, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg.

Another huge benefit will be the creation of a sense of pride among Winnipeggers, she said.

"You can tell from the cheers and hoopla at Portage and Main (Thursday) night that this is an issue that creates a lot of excitement and happiness," James said.

"This is a huge, spirit-building piece of momentum, along with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the new stadium for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and development at The Forks."

She said there will be many ripple effects too, such as increased income for city business owners and much-improved prospects for engaging young people and keeping them from moving away.

James said studies have shown that every time a visitor comes to Winnipeg, they spend between $167 and $337 per day, depending on why they're here. A meeting and convention delegate, for example, will spend more than a leisure visitor. She said a new NHL hockey team would draw people from as far as 800 kilometres away.

"Anything that attracts visitors to this town is of huge economic benefit," James said.

Dave Angus, CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, shares James' optimism.

"People will have more confidence because we're a big-league city again. That always translates into investment in property, residential developments and businesses," he said.

Having an NHL franchise should also make it easier to attract companies, keep current ones and persuade conventions to come here.

"You'll see a great chance for Winnipeg to host meetings and other events because they can be tied into an NHL game," Angus said.

"Talking to my counterparts in the U.S., you see it in National Football League cities for sure."

Anybody who can remember the bedlam at Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant before and after Winnipeg Jets games has had a taste of what's to come for pubs and eateries within a couple of slapshots from the MTS Centre.

"I'm way too excited about it. It will be great for our industry," said Scott Jocelyn, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

Perhaps the most significant development will be the potential of full houses on game nights in mid-week in the dead of winter. As well, watering holes in the suburbs stand to benefit from fans stopping in for a nightcap and to discuss the evening's game, Jocelyn said.

"The NHL will create a reason to go out on nights that we're not busy right now -- the Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in February. If you have tickets to the game, you're going to go. To get the buzz and push out there will be exciting."

Jim Baker's calculator was smoking as he estimated the impact of 41 visiting teams descending on Winnipeg hotels, not to mention diehard fans who will come here for a road trip to see their favourite teams play.

The head of the Manitoba Hotel Association estimates there will be a minimum of about 25 players and team officials per game at a conservative rate of $150 per room per night. That's a six-figure hit even without taking into consideration the meals that might be eaten in hotel restaurants.

He said Toronto's Royal York Hotel is swarming with fans from Detroit, Ottawa, Buffalo and Montreal when their teams are in town and he expects the same thing will happen in Winnipeg when the likes of Minnesota and Calgary visit.

Before the Jets left in 1996, Baker remembers curling at the Highlander sportsplex in a mixed league but he couldn't take his eyes off the group playing on the sheet beside them. They were falling and having lots of fun.

"They came up from Los Angeles to see the Kings play," he said. "They hadn't experienced curling before, so they did it. A whole bunch of little things make a big thing."

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2011 A3

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