WINNIPEG – Manitoba's top political leaders are considering the prospect of an NHL team moving to Winnipeg regardless of who wins the battle to control the Phoenix Coyotes.
On Tuesday, as a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge declined to decide whether Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes or the National Hockey League has the right to run the struggling Sonoran Desert franchise, both Premier Gary Doer and Mayor Sam Katz suggested current pro-hockey economics make Winnipeg a contender for an NHL team -- even as they warned fans not to get their hopes up yet again.
At the Manitoba legislature, Doer told reporters he's met with True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman during the past month about the possibility of an NHL team relocating to Winnipeg.
Doer said the success of the five-year-old MTS Centre, its luxury box seats and the city's hockey fans make the city a better candidate for an NHL team than Hamilton, which does not have luxury box seating in Copps Coliseum -- but does enjoy support from RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who has offered Moyes $212.5 million to buy the Coyotes and would move the club to southern Ontario if a U.S. judge allows the sale to proceed.
"Mr. Chipman and his leadership team with the MTS Centre has had in my view the right approach," Doer said. "The bottom line is some of the things we know in this community are becoming more evident around the hockey universe, and that's good, but that doesn't mean the puck is in the net."
Doer would not discuss the nature of his meeting with Chipman and cautioned much of what's being said about an NHL team relocating to the city is speculative at best. He also said "the last thing hockey fans need in this town" is to have their expectations raised and dashed again, especially since many remain bitter about the way the Winnipeg Jets left town for Phoenix in 1996.
"We have worked to build the MTS Centre and we have worked together on other ideas in hockey and yes, we have ongoing discussions about the situations that are out there," Doer said of his meetings with Chipman. "There are a lot of the right elements in Winnipeg right now. The issue of how much an NHL team costs and who else we're competing with... this is a competitive situation."
Katz echoed Doer's sentiments, stating he believes Winnipeg has the right building, enough corporate support and a rabid enough fan base to support an NHL team, albeit not at any ticket price.
But the mayor suggested the Phoenix Coyotes are likely not the team destined to come to Winnipeg, as several other NHL clubs are struggling -- and no Winnipeg businessperson or group of businesses has put a $212.5-million offer on the table.
"I believe there are more coming down the road. This is the beginning, not the end," Katz said outside his office at city hall.
Katz said he may speak to Balsillie on June 2, when the BlackBerry magnate will visit Winnipeg to address the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce. But the mayor doesn't expect to convince Balsillie to forget about Hamilton and place Winnipeg on top of his relocation wish list, as the RIM executive has been very clear about his preference to move the Coyotes to Ontario.
"Hamilton's very lucky to have him. I wish his headquarters were here in Winnipeg, but they're not," quipped Katz, adding he believes both Winnipeg and Hamilton -- Canada's eighth- and ninth-largest metropolitan areas -- should have NHL teams.
Katz said the key obstacle to moving a club to Winnipeg is the fact True North owns and operates the MTS Centre, which means any new ownership group or existing owner must either form a joint venture with the Winnipeg company or strike some other form of deal.
"If you owned an NHL franchise, let's say in Atlanta, and you wanted to move to Winnipeg, you can't because someone else gets all the revenue in the existing venue. So you have to work out some kind of arrangement," said the mayor, who moved a pro sports franchise to Winnipeg in 1994, when the Northern League's Rochester Aces became the Katz-owned Winnipeg Goldeyes.
The NHL's Atlanta Thrashers have been the subject of relocation speculation. Along with Hamilton and Winnipeg, prospective destinations have included Kansas City and Las Vegas.
But earlier this week, True North's Chipman wanted no part of the latest round of relocation hype, suggesting "it opens a can of worms that leads to nowhere right now."
Even Manitoba Opposition leader Hugh McFadyen, who incorporated a pledge to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg into the Tories' provincial election platform in 2007, said it's too early in the debate to consider the NHL's return to Winnipeg.
For the league to be viable here, more work has to be done to reduce player salaries and thus reduce ticket prices, he suggested.
"You need to find 15,000 people 80 times a year to fork out significant sums of money. That's a big ask," McFadyen said. "You've got to look at whether with current salary levels that's reasonable or not. Can you make it break even or do better?"