I owed Mark Chipman one.
And Thursday seemed like a good day to settle up.
"I'm a little sore," the Winnipeg Jets co-owner confessed when I reached him on the phone late in the evening.
The 53-year-old had just played three hockey games in one day at the fourth annual Mike Keane Classic, a fundraiser for the NHL team's True North Foundation. That's one of the reasons the timing for our little chat seemed so appropriate.
I wanted to talk to him about the foundation — and the recent partnership with Camp Manitou — and essentially apologize in print for something that goes back a few years.
Soon after Winnipeg euphorically welcomed the NHL back, I was on the Jets' case to get involved in giving back to kids in the inner city, in particular those whose parents might not be able to afford hockey equipment and who could benefit from mentors and extra help with school.
I remember Jets director of corporate communications Scott Brown asking me to be patient. It was coming.
What I didn't know was in the years preceding the return of NHL hockey, Chipman's minor league Manitoba Moose had already started a small hockey program at one inner-city school that involved 25 kids.
Since the Jets' return, their foundation has raised and given more than $1 million every year to various charities, along with financing a growing number of their own programs. Today, with the clout to raise way more money, the True North Foundation has the ever-expanding Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy. Today it supports 533 at-risk kids from 11 schools, and three school divisions, by helping them play the game and by assisting them with their school work.
"Two years ago, we used to start in Grade 4," Chipman said. "We now start in Grade 2."
The program outfits the kids with hockey equipment, provides transportation, coaching, and -- from Grade 4 through Grade 8 — provides equal amounts of after-school ice time and class time twice a week.
The True North Foundation, through its 50-50 game-day ticket selling and other fundraising functions, also financially supports the Hockey Canada Skills Academy, a credit-earning program that began in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division and will be in River East next year.
"We're not actually doing instruction," Chipman explained, "because it's occurring during their school day. But now we have a hand-off. After middle school, these kids can actually skate and they can play and they go into the high school programming."
Speaking of handing off.
A few years ago, Camp Manitou board member John Bock told Chipman — his neighbour and friend out Headingley way -- the summer camp for at-risk kids was looking for a hand. Camp Manitou, which opened to serve underprivileged kids at the onset of the Great Depression, had been supported over the decades by a series of service clubs and the YMCA. But now it was dilapidated and debt-plagued.
"The camp is sort of the next extension of everything we do," Chipman said, "because I think what we've learned is that the kids, when they're not in a structured school environment, then that's where they encounter greater risk."
But initially the camp board told Chipman no, and loudly.
You'd think an 11-hectare camp, that figuratively speaking was in danger of sliding into the bend of the Assiniboine River it sits on, would simply have said, "Yes, please, sir," and handed it off.
But Chipman's opening offer was to purchase the property that's a 10-minute walk from where he grew up on the family farm and where the Chipmans own adjacent real estate. The board was suspicious Chipman was really just after the land.
Obviously, they either didn't know the True North Foundation's backstory or they didn't know how committed Chipman is to the work of helping the at-risk kids who arrive at the camp. Over the course of nearly three years of meetings with board president and negotiation point man Garry Hirsch, the Jets owner would give, and give and give again, from covering the camp's debt to paying rent to doing a lease agreement. All so Chipman could do to what he always intended to do: upgrade and develop Camp Manitou as a year-round facility.
The agreement was announced last December. But it only happened because of the persistence and real estate acumen of Hirsch and because of how much Chipman wanted Camp Manitou as part of the True North Foundation vision.
Hirsch remembers how the deal ended between them: with Hirsh saying it was the best real estate deal he ever did and Chipman saying it was his worst. And both of them laughing.
What it really is, of course, is a great deal for the kids who need it most.
A big win, win, win for Winnipeg.