Six years ago next month, the phone rang one afternoon and it was longtime colleague Eric Duhatschek from Calgary.
The Globe and Mail hockey writer, deservedly installed in the writers' category of the Hall of Fame many years ago, has long been, in my humble opinion, one of the most astute observers of the game.
The occasion for our conversation was nothing more than a semi-regular check-up call, possibly this detail or that of the recently concluded new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and NHLPA.
What Duhatschek said that day, however, stuck indelibly in a corner of my brain, so almost six years later, we've had another conversation to go over that and a few of his other insights about the exciting time of the NHL's return to Winnipeg.
Free Press: Eric, in our conversation back in 2005, as I recall it, you said you were quite sure we'd see the NHL back in Winnipeg within three to five years. Why did you say that?
Eric Duhatschek: "I looked at that agreement and saw a big flaw, they (the NHL) got the cap they so wanted, but they didn't pay attention to the floor. It was an artificial structure now requiring teams to spend x amount of dollars. There were teams spending less than that in the free-spending era and now suddenly had to come up with millions more. And everybody knew that first salary cap was pegged at an artificially low number and everyone knew that salary cap would jump and teams that didn't want to spend would be obliged to spend more and more. This year the floor could be $48 million. It was a flaw in the agreement.
"If those teams were in trouble before, how would forcing bottom teams to take on salary -- even though revenue sharing would help a few teams -- fix anything? They didn't solve the problem of the small-market teams. What they did was enrich the richer teams. Those teams like Philly, Toronto, the Rangers, they were bulletproof anyway (and) just became more bulletproof under this agreement. This did nothing for teams 21-30. My extrapolation was that with the Canadian dollar rising, with the six Canadian teams doing well and carrying the league, even in Edmonton in a small and old building, I really thought Winnipeg and Quebec would get teams and Toronto another team within a reasonable amount of time. That deal suggested to me that at least a third of the teams in the NHL would still operate in the red under that agreement."
FP: By actual timing from that deal to the Thrashers sale, this took just less than six years. It easily could have been five, considering Phoenix. Did market forces just move more slowly than we thought?
ED: "I think you can put that down to Gary Bettman's stubbornness. And stubbornness is probably the wrong word. It's loyalty in a lot of ways because he has worked hard where Phoenix was on death's doors three years ago. He's tried to make it go there but I think they realize the clock is running out there; it hasn't been a good situation down there for a long time as much as I love the people and the building down there. If market forces had been allowed to determine this, it would have been over a long time ago. Gary Bettman was concerned about losing that television market, he liked having a team there because of the population and he could see down the road that Glendale would be the centre of the metropolitan area down there, because everything's being built west. The first domino could really have fallen in 2008.
FP: You've always been open in your thinking that the Toronto area is ideal for another Canadian franchise. Does this return-to-Winnipeg event alter your thinking in any way and why did Winnipeg happen before Toronto, in your opinion?
ED: "I think it's apples and oranges. In a perfect world, what the NHL would like is to not do anything soon, say 2020 out of my hat, they'd like to be a 32-team entity with four eight-team divisions and if they'll have two expansion teams, they'll charge some outrageous sum of money like a half a billion dollars and one of the cities they'll try to get to pay it is some group or consortium who will operate it in Toronto. In the meantime, they'll have to settle with the Leafs, who want to protect their brand there, the same way the (L.A. Kings) got a cheque for letting Anaheim into the league. Toronto would be a great place for the next broken franchise... but once Quebec gets their building, I think probably a team could be operating there within 12 to 24 months and they keep Toronto, to protect it, for an expansion for way down the road."
FP: When the NHL left Winnipeg in 1996, the beginnings of the dead puck era had been established. What has happened to the NHL game in the interim and for live fans, what kind of NHL hockey is Winnipeg getting back?
ED: "It's a much faster game. They'll be amazed at how fast it is and the violence of the collisions. It's 33 years for me now; I've never seen more hitting and more violent hitting. Players are bigger, stronger, faster and the equipment is like armour. When these guys collide, it's monstrous. You can hear it and you can sometimes feel it when you're in the building, especially near ice level. The game is better, the players are better but I don't know if the overall product is better. Every team is so well coached. There's almost no open ice. Everybody closes in on the puck carrier. The classic hockey from the '80s, teams up and down the ice with lots of room, well, there's no room out there today. You have to be extremely skilled to play out there today. It's fun to watch from down low, though, like a track meet."