Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Next CBA crucial to Jets' success

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Winnipeg hockey fans waited 15 years to get their team back. What's one more if it means long-term sustainability and a real chance of winning a Stanley Cup?

We were patient in getting the team back. We know how to wait. Perhaps it's time to push for a little more patience so the future can be one of competitive, championship hockey and not just membership.

Everyone wants hockey back. But for Winnipeggers, the next CBA will go a long way in determining the future of the Winnipeg Jets. Sustainability is one thing. But why not push for a restructured system that allows this city to compete for the Stanley Cup. And if that means waiting, even losing a season, maybe that's the best thing for Winnipeg.

Was Winnipeg going to win a Stanley Cup under the previous system? Maybe, but probably not was a lot more likely. There just wasn't going to be enough money to spend to the cap and contracting rights were going to see the Jets' best young players leaving just as they hit their peak. Zach Bogosian would be eligible for unrestricted free agency at the age of 25 under the old CBA. That sentence should send a shiver down the back of every Jets fan.

Sure, the easy thing would be to urge ownership to sign now and get the Jets back on the ice. Fans would all feel great on the first Saturday night back at the rink. But at what cost?

The players will advocate for themselves. That's what they're supposed to do. Same goes for the 30 owners as a collective.

But does Ed Snider care about Winnipeg? Not really. Look at the armed-robbery job the Philadelphia Flyers owner tried to pull on the Nashville Predators last summer. No, small markets like Winnipeg are not on the minds of other NHL owners.

The players don't have our backs. They're worried about themselves. Put in their shoes, I can't argue I'd be any different. It's human nature.

The Jets made money last season, but not very much.

The Jets turned a profit in a year that, minus inflation, will most likely be at or near the top of the revenue cycle for this franchise. The key to their financial success, after taking in unexpectedly strong revenue, was living within a budget that was anchored by bottom-third-of-the-league salary spending.

Under the previous CBA, that's what life for the Jets was going to consistently look like. Rabid fan base, bottom-half spending and a plucky team with little hope to contend for a title.

Sure, Kevin Cheveldayoff would do his best to draft and develop, and maybe some young stars would choose to say no to bigger money once free agency arrived. But it was going to be a pretty lean existence. Stanley Cups? Maybe once in a generation. But no promises.

The fans in Toronto and Vancouver don't have to worry themselves with such issues. Any system works for those markets.

They'll make money and spend to whatever cap the league sets and chase the most expensive free agents when they become available.

Winnipeg is a unique market because it is small but still pays its own way. It's not an artificial market. It has real fans with real dollars. No $20 tickets in Winnipeg. This city is willing and able, as Gary Bettman put it, "to pay NHL prices for NHL hockey."

As such, Jets fans deserve a voice. Players and owners can live in some fairy tale where salary spending is uncurbed. But it doesn't work. That's why the game is shut down right now.

This fight isn't about what's best for Toronto or New York. They'll be fine. It's about markets that don't "pay NHL prices for NHL hockey."

It shouldn't be.

No, this fight should be about markets like Winnipeg. Places that can afford to pay the freight but don't have a chance to win.

Some might suggest it takes gall to be pushing for the rights of a franchise that's only been back in the league for one year. Gimme a break. This city is entitled to its say where hockey is concerned. More than entitled. Maybe that 15 years of heartbreak should count for something.

We're not asking for favours or handouts. No thanks. The NHL asked for our money and we put it up. Took Winnipeg and Manitoba all of half a minute. So take your "they're just newcomers" indignation and shove it where the ice will melt. We're not having it.

Winnipeg is an important market. It works. It could work better.

The players deserve to make a handsome living. They have a special skill set that people will pay to watch.

The owners deserve to make money. Last time I checked, there weren't many among us with the capability to put down $170 million on an investment.

But not to be lost in this are the fans. The ones that actually spend enough to make a franchise operate without subsidy.

Don't they deserve a chance to watch parades?

Fight for that system. Even if it means waiting.

For the sake of yourselves.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 14, 2012 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 www.winnipegfreepress.com
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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