Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Drive to 13,000 must be achieved

Successful campaign will silence naysayers

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Succeed over the next few days, Winnipeg, and the fun is only beginning. But should failure be the outcome, prepare to be a laughing stock in Canada and the rest of the hockey world.

There is absolutely no question the city's collective neck is stuck out right now and should we fall flat on our face and not meet ticket-sales expectations for our new NHL team, we will be treated with derision and scorn.

The attention showered upon our city this week is a double-edged sword. It felt great as we were bathed in praise and became the focus of so much nationalistic pride. But it will cut deep and deadly if we don't follow through.

We've begged and pleaded for an NHL franchise and now that we've got one we better use it and not leave it to rot like that treadmill in the laundry room.

I use the word "we" because I'm a Winnipegger and believe this is a community venture and, as such, will be doing my part and putting my money forward for season tickets. I'm a partner in a group that put down a deposit on Wednesday and will be making a personal yearly investment in the thousands of dollars.

I don't point this out to cajole anyone to buy tickets. That's not my agenda or my role. But if I want to talk about this subject, many have and will question my involvement. So there it is, I'm involved. Let's move on.

Tuesday's announcement that Mark Chipman and David Thomson's True North Sports & Entertainment group had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers for relocation was exhilarating. But it's old news already; now begins the work.

In many ways, our day of reckoning has arrived and how we respond will tell the tale of this franchise for the next five years.

The Drive to 13,000, should it be successful, will give Winnipeg's NHL franchise both economic viability and certainty.

"Absolutely," said True North CEO Jim Ludlow, when asked if hitting the drive's goals would make financial success for the franchise feasible. "Having certainty in our revenue world going forward over a three-, four-, five-year period is very, very important in regards to sustainability and traction in the community."

Day 1 results were positive as 1,870 seats were claimed by pre-sale qualified buyers.

Only 25 per cent of those allowed to buy tickets prior to sales being opened to the general public had the option on Tuesday and they activated at a high rate.

True North says just over 8,000 tickets could be sold prior to Saturday's general public opening and close to a quarter of those tickets have already been claimed.

Media and hockey people, both fans and those in the industry, have and will continue to question Winnipeg's ability to support an NHL team. They don't believe in us. Maybe they shouldn't until we prove otherwise.

But that's the beauty of True North's ticket plan. It removes all doubt for the early years. The franchise can get its feet underneath it without having to worry about cash.

The pressure is on the ticket-buying public to fuel the engine. Once that's taken care of, the focus can switch to True North to manage and grow the franchise.

If sales expectations are met, True North will have no excuses. What they do with the organization and how they gain traction in the community for the long-term will be their job and responsibility.

The hockey fans in Atlanta say losing the Thrashers wasn't their fault. They blame ownership for not running the operation up to NHL standards. They blame ownership for losing seasons and not spending money to bring a winner to Atlanta.

Ownership, of course, will say poor revenues prevented them from spending to make the team successful.

Classic chicken and egg.

Winnipeggers can eliminate this discussion right off the hop. If the building is full for the first five seasons and True North hasn't put a product on the ice that the community finds entertaining and worthy of its disposable income, there's going to be some explaining to do.

But first things first -- True North has to be supplied with the means to do its part.

So, it's batter up Winnipeg. What will it be? A home run or a strikeout looking?

It's your call.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2011 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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