FP: How will the recent buzz about a possible return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg effect the Manitoba Moose for the coming AHL season?
JL: With respect to our existing products, existing fans and existing sponsors, we haven't taken our foot off the gas in respect to any of that, no matter what level of business thinking we've done in terms of our company and its growth. If anything, the notion that True North remains a responsive and dynamic company in the community always looking to maintain and enhance its fan experience, is positive for the company and positive for the brand. Our priority will always be to existing clients. If there's any thinking that our product may change in the future, a lot of people will continue their interest or develop an interest.
FP: Have people bought season tickets to the Moose hoping to be in line for a possible NHL return?
JL: I think there have been people that have joined our fan base anticipating the great product we'll have this year and anticipating the potential future. I would tell you, no matter what direction we take here, the priority will always be to existing clients and fans. This year to date we have seen an increase relative to the same time last year in our renewal percentages and our new business development in Moose hockey tickets... People want to stay on the Moose bus. And if the future ever changes, that priority would be beneficial to anyone and people can see that."
FP: True North is a small company in a small city. What makes you think you can compete with operations like Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in Toronto?
JL: No. 1, we take a very dynamic view of our organization in terms of Tier 1. We don't make a distinction between the AHL and the NHL or Philadelphia or Los Angeles and Winnipeg. We attempt, in respect to all our properties in sports and entertainment, to provide Tier 1 service to all our fans, customers, artists, sponsors, players and visiting teams. etc... And we would continue to deliver that standard in the AHL for as long as we're in the AHL. And if that's for the rest of our days, that's exactly what we'll target... Whether they're hosting Elton John in Winnipeg or in Los Angeles at the Staples Centre, we do the same thing. We try and do it better. Because we're in a smaller community we think we have to work harder to prove ourselves. It falls into somebody's lap in a bigger community and they do well there too. But we have to work harder.
FP: Why does Toronto-based David Thomson and Osmington Inc. want to be involved in owning a hockey team in Winnipeg?
JL: We all started this for reasons that we thought were appropriate at the time way back in 2001. The Osmington group had an interest in the Eaton's building and some properties around it on Portage Avenue. There had been decades of discussion about replacing the old arena and there was agreement in the private and public sector that it was time to do something for downtown Winnipeg. We had an opportunity to develop a partnership with Osmington. At the time it was a development partnership on Portage Avenue. There were many participants at the time. Community-minded participants at the time said no matter what the end game on this business model is going to be, we think for the city of Winnipeg it's time for a new suit. We think it's time for a new public assembly facility and time to re-generate plus downtown Winnipeg had become tired. There were lots of interested investors in the city of Winnipeg that participated in the True North model at the time and appropriately so. What happened, with good fortune and good vision between the public and private sectors and the community, is that the MTS Centre evolved. And a heart and soul came out of the MTS Centre with a management group and ownership group that was committed to Tier 1 success. The community happened to respond to that, the artist/ promoter and sporting community responded to it as well. So in our almost 900 offerings and 5.5 million people in the past five years, we have far exceeded expectations of everyone involved. So what I think happened, is the combination of events, accolades, awards, major facility of the year, top employer in Manitoba, top 50 employer in the country for three years running, Pollstar recognition throughout North America, (MTS Centre) just sort of popped. And the city of Winnipeg just sort of popped and hit various radar screens for various reasons. Appropriately so, certain investors in True North said, 'we think we'd like to make a further investment and consolidate ownership and assist management in pushing the vision further than we'd anticipated.' You can't get there without the response of the community but collectively, private sector, public sector, ownership, management and dynamic community, caused everyone to take a different potential view of the opportunities MTS Centre, True North Sports and Entertainment might bring for the city. Long way around that, it says to some people, 'you know what, we can make a difference in the community.' If there's any interest in that from Toronto, it's that, 'we think Winnipeg and True North have execeeded expectations. We think there's a possibility to make a difference in the community, we'd like to continue on with True North no matter what that becomes because it has exceeded expectations and is good for the community.
FP: What is the ownership breakdown between the Chipman family's Megill-Stephenson parent company and Osmington?
JL: There's been an evolution of ownership. We've had a very satisfied ownership group. Over the years, Osmington/Toronto and Megill/Winnipeg, as a result of their real passion and interest, have enhanced their ownership position, where effectively Megill and Osmington own the company. There's one last piece that's being wound down. Controlling mind of the company is Megill/Osmington. Relatively speaking, it's pretty even. The better answer for that is, in the right ownership group with the right management team, decisions are made by consensus. As long as you have a consenus table you have a highly functional, fluid relationship between management and ownership. There's a high degree of respect and trust in that relationship that's been developed over a decade.
Would you buy Moose season tickets hoping to have first shot at seats in the MTS Centre if the NHL returns to Winnipeg?
Amid the debate on the NHL's possible return to Winnipeg sits True North Sports and Entertainment.
The brainchild of chairman Mark Chipman, True North operates the Manitoba Moose, the MTS Centre, books and promotes concerts and is building the MTS Iceplex, a sports complex aimed at serving over 100,000 people per year.
The MTS Centre is rated the third busiest venue in Canada and is in North America's top 20 according to Pollstar, the entertainment trade magazine.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Winnipeg is a potential market for an NHL franchise, thanks in part to True North's track record.
If an NHL franchise were to call Winnipeg home, True North CEO and president Jim Ludlow believes his team is ready.
Free Press hockey writer Gary Lawless sat down with Ludlow and discussed True North's success story.