Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fight to save Jets spawned fighters

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The Jets are back! For someone who was involved in the failed attempt to keep them in Winnipeg in 1995, it is wonderful to see the excitement that has been created, particularly among young people across our province.

Fifteen years ago there was another group of young leaders in our community who rallied in a last-ditch effort to keep the Jets here. Their motivation was to ensure that young Manitobans would be able to enjoy the same benefits that we had enjoyed watching the Jets since their inception in the WHA. The circumstances were difficult. In 1992, under threat of the move of the team to Hamilton, the province and the city signed an agreement with the Jets owners under which the province would fund team losses for three years, time to solve the main problem -- the arena.

The Winnipeg Arena, built in the 1950s and later renovated to increase seating to 15,000 from 10,000, could not generate the revenue needed to sustain the team in Winnipeg. The challenge was to see a new arena constructed and also transfer ownership of the Jets.

Two studies both arrived at the same conclusion -- there was not a solution that would be tenable to the province and the owners. In May of 1994, it seemed that the departure of the Jets would be announced any day.

On the May long weekend, however, a small group got together at the Lake of the Woods to see if there was anything more that could be done. It was decided that if a group of prominent Winnipeggers could be formed and a deal was struck with the owners, the province and the city could extend the existing agreement for one year.

Work started the next week. The owners and province were approached. The owners agreed that if losses were covered, the agreement could be extended one more year on the condition that a new arena was constructed. A group of 50 business leaders was formed to undertake the challenge. Eight were assigned to work out details.

During the summer, the Manitoba Entertainment Complex (MEC) began negotiating, not an easy task given that any agreement required approval from a fractured city council. Work also started on finding a site and designing a building that would meet the needs of the community and the Jets. The site at The Forks (now home to Shaw Park) was settled on.

By fall, architects and engineers had been hired and negotiations had taken place with Ottawa and The Forks to tear down unused structures on the site. Studies had been undertaken to establish that existing streets and parking structures could handle the requirements of an 18,000-capacity arena. Tours of new arenas in Phoenix, San Jose and Anaheim had been conducted. The design was well underway. At the same time, financial plans were being formulated. The project would require $175 million. All this despite the distractions that surfaced daily.

The mood was different in the mid-'90s. Governments had been running deficits for years. The public was demanding balanced budgets. As a result, federal transfer payments were cut by $500 million in one year. This left the province in the position of having to reduce expenses to balance its budget.

Arguments were made that funding a hockey team or using taxpayer funds to construct a $110-million arena for them to play in should not be undertaken at all. These were politically charged issues and getting decisions from any level of government was difficult and time-consuming.

In addition, questions remained whether, even with a new arena, NHL hockey would be viable in small Canadian markets. Player salaries were exploding and were funded in American dollars at a time when the Canadian dollar was trading at US 70 cents. The owners locked the players out at the start of the season in an effort to get league finances under control. When the new contract was put in place, there were still small-market questions -- the Quebec Nordiques had been sold and relocated to Denver and there were rumours that the Edmonton Oilers would be next.

To complicate matters further, a provincial election was called in March 1995. Premier Gary Filmon stated that, if re-elected, his government would do everything within reason to ensure the Jets remained in Winnipeg. NDP leader Gary Doer's position was that there would be no public money for a new arena or the hockey team without a referendum. The election meant there was no government to talk to.

As the election unfolded, the NHL was proceeding with an expansion in the southern states to secure a U.S. national television contract. The NHL also was about to make it clear that it was uncomfortable with a solution that did not result in one principal owner of the team. MEC's solution provided for broad community ownership.

The negotiations came to a head and after a day-long discussion with the NHL, it was determined that there was no way the efforts to save the Jets could be successful. On May 3, 1995, at a hastily called news conference, I had the heartbreaking task of informing the fans and followers of the Jets that we could not be successful and that the team would be sold and moved.

This was not the end of the story.

A new group called the Spirit of Manitoba quickly formed and negotiations continued throughout the summer. Eventually this group came to the same conclusion and the Jets were sold for approximately C$100 million -- almost double what the owners would have received had the team been sold to local interests.

Whether or not there is a moral to this saga is for someone more detached to determine. My observation is that out of this fight to keep the Jets in Winnipeg, a new group of leaders emerged. Although their efforts to save the Jets failed, their leadership in business, in charitable work, and in other volunteer activities have continued to serve the city and province well.

Mark Chipman and others who have assisted in his dream of bringing the Jets back to Winnipeg are to be congratulated.

Go, Jets, go!

John Loewen was spokesman for the Manitoba Entertainment Complex group that tried but failed to keep the Jets in Winnipeg 15 years ago.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2011 A12

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