Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

True North is playing it smart

Chipman's crew has taken the high road and it will pay off

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Considering the hill they needed to climb to get to this point, the strategy employed by True North Sports and Entertainment has been well thought out and smartly executed. It will almost certainly bear fruit some day in the form of an NHL franchise for Winnipeg.

While it appears the Phoenix Coyotes will remain where they are for now, the process that has played out recently indicates how far Winnipeg has come as a hockey market in the eyes of the NHL.

Not too long ago this city was deemed unfit for the NHL and just this week the league's commissioner Gary Bettman was on the verge of correcting that wrong. Mark Chipman and his team at True North are directly responsible for that turnaround.

Chipman has said many times that when he made the decision to bring an IHL franchise to Winnipeg back in 1996 on the heels of the NHL's Jets leaving this city for Phoenix, he was just trying to keep pro hockey alive in Winnipeg. He's done that and more, developing the Manitoba Moose brand into one of the most respected in hockey and building an organization arguably superior in many ways to a number of NHL operations.

The NHL has taken notice, as manifested in their willingness to enter negotiations with True North, albeit as a fallback position in relation to the Coyotes franchise.

Always careful with their words, this week the NHL provided a glimpse at the growing respect they have for Chipman and his True North team, which includes Toronto billionaire David Thomson.

"We've said for several years we believe Winnipeg can support an NHL franchise. They have indicated repeatedly that they continue to be interested in a franchise and I believe at some point they'll get an NHL franchise. I wouldn't be discouraged or dis--appointed if I'm in Winnipeg at all," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Free Press this week.

Commissioner Gary Bettman opened up on his relationship with Chipman that has increasingly focused on discussions concerning a return of the NHL to Winnipeg.

"If we have to move the Coyotes, obvious--ly there is an equitable fairness point that if the team has to go somewhere, certainly the place it came from should be given strong consideration," said Bettman. "We're aware of their interest and aware of their operations. Mark (Chipman), I know, is an owner who's extremely well-respected by the American Hockey League and he's somebody I've had a relationship with over the years."

For many years Bettman was reluctant to even engage in talk of Winnipeg. Over time, however, and with Chipman patiently moving Winnipeg's case forward, the commissioner has come around and brought the rest of the league with him.

In the winter of 2007, as relocation began to look like a reality for a number of markets, Bettman invited Chipman to New York to give a presentation on the readiness of True North and the market for a possible return of the NHL.

Since then, Bettman has kept a tight handle on his opinions on Winnipeg in public forums, but has continued behind the scenes discussions with True North.

Chipman has followed suit. His organization rarely has anything to say on the subject other than to release the odd statement saying they are interested and will be ready to review an opportunity with the NHL should one arise.

True North, with its award-winning operation of the Moose, profitable bottom line as operators of MTS Centre and alignment with communications scion Thomson, has developed undeniable credibility in the NHL's New York offices and throughout the hockey world.

They have created a financial and competitive success with their hockey operation and made Winnipeg one of the busiest concert destinations in North America.

Most recently True North has continued its expansion with the development of another profitable centre in the MTS Iceplex. True North is a formidable and credible brand and if given entrance into the NHL will arguably be one of the league's most stable operations from a financial and organizational standpoint.

Chipman's strategy has been to develop a thriving and stable company, one that sees the NHL not as an endgame but merely the natural next step in a continuing progression.

Banging the nationalistic drum and creating a media fervor has been seen as counter-productive in the efforts of other would-be NHL operators such as Jim Balsillie.

True North has endeavoured to be seen in an altogether different light -- as an organization eager to be a partner in the NHL and not a rogue attempting to break the rules of membership in order to gain entry.

Chipman understands that the NHL is a club and the only way to get in is through the front door. One can try pounding on the door but it's unlikely to open. Rather, it's better to call ahead and see if there's room.

To date there has been no empty tables but assuredly True North is now in the lobby and just waiting to have its name called.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2010 D3

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