Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Katz vows to lead conga line

Officials steel for big bash downtown for NHL's return

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Preparations are underway for an official party downtown to let hockey fans celebrate the return of the NHL, but it likely won't be announced this week.

The game plan calls for sealing off Portage and Main to traffic as thousands of revellers are expected to congregate -- and possibly conga -- at the historic intersection.

Also in the works is designating The Forks as the focus for celebrations that could extend into the night and might include live entertainment and even fireworks. According to officials, police will gently escort fans to The Forks where the party can safely grow.

Mayor Sam Katz said Wednesday he thinks an NHL announcement could happen before the end of the week.

Katz told reporters wrapping up a deal to bring the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg is a huge undertaking, and needs to be signed, lawyered and approved by the NHL's board of governors.

"I do believe something before the end of the week is likely," Katz said following a city council meeting Wednesday morning, adding the mayor of Atlanta, "is basically telling his citizens that the team is leaving.

"Then we can all go dance in the streets and celebrate the return of the NHL to Winnipeg," Katz said. "I'll be leading the conga line."

Paul Jordan, chief operating officer of The Forks Renewal Corporation, said in an email the popular meeting place at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers has already been put on notice to prepare for an NHL-calibre party.

"We really don't know much but we are preparing for it," Jordan said.

"It really depends on what time of the day it's announced and what we can put together with three hours' notice."

Katz said the city has not been asked to contribute funds toward the True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. effort to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg, noting he thinks it would be "foolish" for government to get involved.

If an announcement happens Friday, Premier Greg Selinger could be stuck on a plane or on the ground in Manitoba's north. He has a pre-arranged trip today and Friday to visit the Pimachiowin Aki World Heritage Project, which is working to get a United Nations World Heritage Site designation for a 40,000-square-kilometre area of northern boreal forest. The earliest he could be back in Winnipeg is noon on Friday.

Police know even less about when an announcement will be made, but they're still putting together a crowd-control plan with the hope everyone will be well-behaved, Staff Sgt. Mark Hodgson, officer in charge of the central traffic unit, said.

"We do have a plan in place, but just like everyone else we are waiting for an announcement," Hodgson said. "We have no idea how big it will be, but the plan is to allow some congregation at Portage and Main, and then we are going to attempt to 'push' the crowd to The Forks."

How many people will show up is the big unknown, he added, and how many extra officers will have to be called in on short notice causes an even bigger headache.

"We've accepted the fact that there is going to be a party," he said.

What also complicates things for police is not knowing how many people will attend after True North's actual announcement that the NHL is back.

Hodgson said fans will likely gather outside the MTS Centre -- extra media rooms are already set up inside -- and could be allowed inside to be involved.

That means police will likely have to shut Portage Avenue at Donald Street east to Main Street so those fans can walk down to Portage and Main. Main will most likely be closed at McDermot Avenue to the north and Pioneer Avenue to the south.

"We do have plans to expand, but that depends on the crowd," he said.

 

-- with files from Jen Skerritt

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2011 A3

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