Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selinger gets playing time on first line

Centre stage during moment of glory as others sidelined

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Tuesday was a day of great contrast.

At the MTS Centre, Premier Greg Selinger stood on a stage with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and True North partners Mark Chipman and David Thomson to officially announce the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg. Just over a kilometre away, Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen was at The Forks celebrating with hockey fans. And tweeting.

In politics, to the victor goes the photo opportunity. As premier of a government that has worked closely with True North Sports & Entertainment to bring NHL hockey back, Selinger earned his place with the VIPs. McFadyen, on the other hand, is the leader of the Opposition and as most people in politics know, you don't get the same photo ops when you're in Opposition.

Still, there has to be some bitterness in the McFadyen camp. Four years ago, in his first election as Tory leader, McFadyen made a bold play for voter support by announcing he would do whatever he could as premier to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg. He was vilified for the ploy by Tories and non-Tories alike. And now, just five months before a provincial election he has a very good chance of winning, he is tweeting at The Forks while Selinger gets national exposure on what is easily one of the biggest stories in Canada. Politics, like hockey, can be a cruel game.

A lot of uncertainty continues to surround Winnipeg's new NHL team. We don't know what it will be called, or who the general manager will be. But one thing we can count on is that quite a few politicians will be adding "helped bring the NHL back to Winnipeg" to their resumés. They might not explicitly try to take credit, but you can bet that just about everyone in this fall's election will be citing the return of NHL hockey as proof of something. If you're in government, it's proof that things are good and there's no need for change. If you're not in government, then the return of the NHL is a sign change is in the air.

True North scored the goal here, but do the politicians genuinely deserve an assist? The arena would not have been built without taxpayer support and politicians who were willing to spend a little bit of their own personal capital. Pumping public money into the arena was very controversial back in the day. Now, even some of the most vociferous detractors are conceding the investment in what is now known as the MTS Centre has worked out pretty well.

Who then, if anyone, deserves credit? The deal to support the arena was forged by former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray and former premier Gary Doer. Neither is here now to accept some of the credit, and that creates an opening for others, deserving or not, to step in. Not that it's easy.

Seating Selinger on the stage with Chipman, Thomson and Bettman was definitely a tip of the hat to the province. In almost all respects, the NDP government has put its money where its mouth is on this file. But what about the other levels of government?

No federal Conservative MPs or ministers appeared to be at the announcement. It's possible the feds didn't want to get too close to this announcement when Tory MPs in Quebec are lobbying for cash for an arena in Quebec City they hope would bring back the NHL.

Mayor Sam Katz was at the official announcement, although he was seated in the second row of chairs in the news conference room. Sources confirmed Katz asked for a spot on the stage but was turned down. Officially, True North representatives said once Thomson confirmed he would attend, there was no room for Katz. A convenient but not entirely accurate excuse. Katz's propensity over the past two weeks to spurt unofficial details of the Winnipeg-Atlanta negotiations caused a lot of anxiety for True North. But that is likely only part of the reason Katz was the odd man out.

Over the years, Katz has made no secret of the fact he thinks True North got a sweetheart deal from government to build the MTS Centre. This was likely Katz the baseball team and ballpark owner talking, but no matter. This is much too small a town to let smack-talk like that go unrewarded. The end result is while Selinger was being interviewed by national television, Katz was at The Forks leading a conga line of hockey fans. You have to give Katz credit; having been left out of the official event, he created his own special moment.

No matter how you cut this, Selinger is the big winner. Notwithstanding his small brain cramp -- referring to former Moose captain Mike Keane as "Mark" a couple of times -- Selinger finds himself front and centre in the biggest story in the province. Helping lure the NHL back to Winnipeg is not a game changer, but it is another grain of sand on his side of the electoral scales.

Hockey parents often like to tell their kids that an assist is just as good as a goal. That has never been more true than it is in this story.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2011 A6

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