Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Truth and rumours

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SO, what have you heard?

Yes, those rumours regarding our city and its continuing prospects for a National Hockey League franchise have re-surfaced, and once again the key players are familiar to the locals. First, there is True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns and operates MTS Centre. That group, featuring the Chipmans, the deep pockets of David Thomson, and an unnamed third party, is rumoured to be putting the finishing touches on a deal that will see the Thrashers franchise leave Atlanta and come to Winnipeg for the start of the 2010-11 season.

Before you head out to buy your Tobias Enstrom jersey, take a deep breath. There's more to the story.

If you recall, this tale first came up around the water cooler back in October, on the strength of a Hockey Night in Canada roundtable discussion. Not much came from the rumour back then and it faded away before Halloween.

Phase II of the latest version of this hot rumour has the Western Hockey League's Saskatoon Blades also coming to Winnipeg, with the Manitoba Moose shipping its American Hockey League operation west.

Here's the kicker: All this is supposedly going to be announced after the Olympic, in just over two weeks time.

The social networking media and message boards are all a-Twitter over this story regarding the latest Thrashers move and even Mayor Sam Katz is upbeat. "I can tell you when you hear from as many sources I've heard from, there's a good possibility."

But just how close are the rumours to the truth?

Let's take a look.

RUMOUR: The Atlanta Thrashers have been sold to a group that includes True North (David Thomson, Mark Chipman etc.) and an unnamed investor and will be moved to Winnipeg.

TRUTH: "It's no different than last week's rumour and there's nothing to it," True North spokesman Scott Brown said Tuesday. "Of course we deny it; it's completely false."

RUMOUR: There will be a press conference March 4, right after the Olympics and the NHL's trading deadline, to announce the Atlanta Thrashers have been sold and will be relocated to Winnipeg.

TRUTH: Pardon us if this sounds repetitive but, "It's no different than last week's rumour and there's nothing to it," Brown said.

RUMOUR: The Thrashers are busy dumping salaries to make the franchise more sellable.

TRUTH: The Trashers are not the NHL's biggest headache, trouble-spot or money-pit. As for the trade of Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta general manager Don Waddell's decision was to deal a player who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and refused to sign a contract extension with the team, not even for more than $100 million for a 12-year term. Whatever you think of the trade, it's not dumping salary, it's trying to salvage something from a franchise player who would literally turn into nothing for the Thrashers on July 1.

RUMOUR: If the Thrashers touch down in Winnipeg, the Manitoba Moose will run to Saskatoon with the Blades (WHL) coming back the other way. The new NHL ownership group in Winnipeg will own and operate the cheaper, family oriented hockey alternative (like the Edmonton and Calgary situations) and keep the MTS Centre busy in the process.

TRUTH: Jack Brodsky, owner of the Blades, heard the rumour Tuesday. He said no one has contacted him about Winnipeg. "I got a chuckle out of it," he said. "Something like that would certainly come across my desk." WHL commissioner Ron Robison also ripped the yarn to shreds. "No way. There are no thoughts of moving them," he said. "Saskatoon is an original member in our league and an institution in that community. That's where they'll remain. I'm not sure where that story came from."

RUMOUR: Engineers recently visited MTS Centre to investigate whether the seating capacity of the rink could be expanded.

TRUTH: "I've heard that one, too," said Brown. "There's no truth to it."

RUMOUR: The Chipman family sold National Leasing, the equipment-leasing company in which it held a 50 per cent plus stake, for $130 million to make liquid assets available for use in the purchase of an NHL franchise.

TRUTH: The sale of National Leasing to Canadian Western Bank in December was a strategic move to allow National Leasing access to bank funding after the credit market dried up.

RUMOUR: Mark Chipman and Premier Greg Selinger have talked about the Thrashers move.

TRUTH: Manitoba Moose owner and True North Sports and Entertainment president Mark Chipman has met Selinger several times since he took over the province's top job last fall. A source said in the most recent meeting Chipman had with Selinger, the discussion did not involve moving the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg.

RUMOUR: The NHL likes "the Chipper."

TRUTH: Mark Chipman, the chairman of True North Sports & Entertainment, has done all the right things to set the table for the possible return of the NHL to Winnipeg.

Not only has Chipman built up a first-rate organization and a downtown facility, but he has followed the league's rules and regulations to the letter.

"In my travels around the league, (Chipman's) name is held in very high regard in the NHL community. I know the NHL loves Chipper," said Grant Skinner, president and CEO of Wellington West Pro Ice.

-- Compiled by Free Press staff

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 17, 2010 A5

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