Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

MTS Centre has NHL capacity

So says Bettman and commish's word is law

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It is the Lesson of Jim Balsillie. And the people behind the bid to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg have learned it well.The lesson is this: No matter who you are or how much money you have or how much sense your idea makes, nobody, nowhere, will ever get to play in the NHL sandbox without the approval of commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman might be short, he might be twirpy, he might be unlikeable -- all three, actually. But do not make the mistake Balsillie did: Bettman makes the rules.

Had Balsillie followed them, he could have owned three teams right now: the Penguins, the Predators or the Coyotes. But Balsillie opted instead to challenge Bettman, to make the case the NHL is not an autocratic fiefdom, that it should be governed by the same laws and rules as every other business enterprise in this prosperous Western capitalist democracy.

Nice try with that, Jim.

Bettman runs this show and the lesson that emerged from a Phoenix courtroom this year for the backers of an NHL bid in Winnipeg was this: Whatever else you do, follow the rules as they are made and interpreted by Bettman. Want a team for Winnipeg? Maybe he's got one for you -- but it will be at the commissioner's whim, at the time of his choosing and entirely on Bettman's terms.

And there was very good news this week on one of those fronts for the folks who want the NHL back in Winnipeg. One of Bettman's inviolable terms for an NHL team -- indeed, the one that cost us the Winnipeg Jets in the first place -- is the suitability of our city's arena.

And what Bettman made clear this week is this: For all the wringing of hands by NHL backers and opponents alike that Winnipeg's MTS Centre is too small for the NHL, the only opinion that matters in the end says our arena is big enough for him.

Here's what Bettman told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday: "While we play to 93 to 94 per cent capacity, we'd like to play to 100 per cent capacity," Bettman said. "A 15,000-16,000 seat arena might work better in some markets than a 19,000-seat arena."

A 15,000- to 16,000-seat arena? Funny thing -- Winnipeg just happens to have one of those sitting on Portage Avenue, a shiny new building with loads of luxury boxes and precisely 15,002 seats for hockey.

Is it on the small end? Yes, it is. But does it disqualify us for consideration? No, not after that pronouncement.

And what was just as compelling about Bettman's comments this week was what he also alluded to about the 19,000-seat arenas: They can sometimes be a problem more than a solution. I talked to some people this week that have first-hand knowledge of constructing big-time arenas and what they told me was this: Those last couple thousand seats you put in a building are the most expensive to build and least profitable to sell.

Most expensive because they require you to expand out and use more steel and concrete and least profitable because they are the seats furthest away from the playing surface.

Now, if you can sell them out every game, that's fine. But if you're in a place like Ottawa where those nosebleeds often sit empty, two things happen.

First, you're not getting back all that money those seats cost you to construct. And second, you're killing your season-ticket and mini-pack sales if your supply too often exceeds your demand, because people will quickly realize they don't have to take the risk of locking themselves into a ticket package if they can buy one, even a lousy one, on game day.

Put it all together then and the people behind the MTS Centre, and now Bettman apparently, believe Winnipeg's arena just might be perfect for the NHL: Big enough to generate big revenue and small enough to maximize demand.

Now, don't misunderstand, there's still a million reasons why the NHL might not work in Winnipeg. The escalating salary cap makes operating expenses too high; the price tag for relocating a team or buying an expansion team -- which is what Bettman was marketing this week -- is too high; Winnipeggers just won't pay the big bucks for an NHL ticket; whiners who believe change is bad and hate all bold new things speak loudest in this city.

All of that could certainly still be true -- bet the mortgage on the last one -- and any one of those things could still keep the NHL from returning to Winnipeg.

But one thing you can no longer say after this week is that the NHL cannot return to Winnipeg because the MTS Centre is too small.

Because this week, Gary Bettman said it's big enough. And as Balsillie found out, that alone makes it so.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 4, 2009 C1

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