Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg could be NHL winner -- by default

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And another thing about this Atlanta Thrashers business...Turns out, as usual, the speculative uprooting of an American-based NHL team and spiriting them -- Spiriting Manitoba!! (Hey, just trying to get our million dollars' worth) -- is a lot more easily rumoured than done.

Something about naming rights on the Philips Arena, at about $10 million per, and a supposed signed agreement with NHL headquarters to keep the Thrashers in Georgia for another few years. Of, course, there's the standard-issue denials out of Atlanta that the team is for sale in the first place, even though up to 10 NHL teams are said to be available. Whatever.

The point is not necessarily that the Thrashers could be bought -- with the financial assistance of True North money-bag partner David Thomson, who is apparently so rich his pool boy is Jim Balsillie -- and moved to our fair city.

Because whether or not the tidbit, floated on Hockey Night in Canada by resident provocateur Al Strachan, comes to fruition is getting to be beside the point.

I mean, if it's not the Thrashers linked to Winnipeg, then take your pick as the American economy dives head-first in the morass. Tampa Bay? Florida Panthers? New York Islanders? Nashville Predators? And, yes, that old ditty, the Phoenix Coyotes.

You see, barring the unforeseen, the prospect of the NHL returning to even little ol' Winnipeg is on a collision course with destiny. And it has nothing to do with the possibility that the River City has, since the loss of the Jets, morphed into a powerful financial centre with an enormous, new NHL arena just waiting to be turned into a cash cow.

After all, Winnipeg, it could be argued, hasn't changed a great deal in the last 13 winters, since the Jets skipped town. Yes, we've got ourselves a nifty and modest 15,000-seat barn now, but it would be the tiniest venue in the NHL.

But it's not what has happened in Winnipeg that is now -- and will continue -- generating speculation about the NHL's return. No, it's what's happening in the NHL itself, as has long been posited in this space.

Over the summer, as the sordid financial dirty laundry of the Phoenix Coyotes was broadcast across North America -- like they were standing in their underwear on their front lawn -- it quickly became a good bet that, no matter how much denial there is concerning financial distress in other soft NHL markets, it's probably much worse than even the skeptics believed.

For heaven's sake, the Coyotes, according to court documents, lost an inconceivable $400 million over the last five years.

And think: The already financially-strapped NHL markets haven't yet begun to reap the losses of a 2009-2010 season, which could trigger... who knows what? Another bankruptcy? Another attempt by the rogue Balsillie to waste millions in legal fees on misguided, fatally flawed legal manoeuvres? The relocation of a team in a non-traditional hockey market to, you know, Kansas City?

We certainly hope so. That's some good readin.'

Then there's the growing malcontents in the NHL's players' union, who clearly have come to realize that, under terms of the new CBA, with salary caps tied to revenue, that failing markets = escrow. Players are already putting aside up to 25 per cent of their salaries in escrow, fearing that overall league revenue will plummet to the point where their cheques could be garnished some 20-25 per cent.

"From a player's standpoint, though, in Atlanta, we never have to explain why they pay escrow," sardonically noted HNIC analyst and former NHLPA union official Glenn Healy last Saturday night. "They just have to look up (into the stands). Oh, I see why. Half the seats empty."

So get ready, Winnipeg. This is Grade 8 math. Within months, the prospect of relocating an NHL team to Manitoba's capital is only going to gain momentum. And not because of any significant -- other than the arena, which is no longer "new" -- developments here in our slow-but-steady burgh.

Rather, the NHL is running out of options, and fast. There are owners who are getting antsy about recovering all or some of their losses. If you don't believe me, ask Jerry Moyes. And there are players/partners just beginning to feel the very costly financial effects that teams that regularly lose $20-plus million annually have on their fat paycheques.

A Toronto-based group rumoured to be looking to buy the Atlanta Thrashers and move them to Winnipeg?

Well, just for future reference, change "Toronto-based group" to "Winnipeg-based group with wealthy Toronto partners." Now change Thrashers to Florida Panthers. Or Tampa Bay Lightning. Or Phoenix Coyotes. Or Nashville Predators. Or... well, you get the point.

The only part of the aforementioned rumour that won't change is "Winnipeg."

Not because our city has become the apple of the NHL's black eye. Not because they suddenly view Winnipeg as a blue-chip membership prospect. It's because sooner than most think, they won't have any other choice. Except outright contraction.

It's not exactly a news flash, but Strachan was right. There is movement to bring the NHL to Winnipeg. Has been for a few years now.

And when the garage sale of failing NHL teams finally opens in earnest, as it eventually will, they might even make a play to buy one of them. You know, for the right price.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 7, 2009 C6

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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