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Chipman hopes to break IceCaps out of the Rock

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ANAHEIM -- Perhaps sensing the hornet's nest he'd just knocked over out in Newfoundland, Winnipeg Jets chairman Mark Chipman went to great lengths on Tuesday to assuage what were surely some hurt feelings out on the Rock to news that the Jets are involved in discussions to move their AHL affiliate to Thunder Bay, Ont.

Speaking here at the Honda Center at a hastily called news conference just prior to his team's practice, Chipman went out of his way several times to stress his club's desire to move the St. John's IceCaps from St. John's to Thunder Bay had absolutely nothing to do with the level of support or depth of passion from fans in St. John's.

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"We've been, as you can imagine, in regular communication with our partners there... dating back to when we first entered into it. We were going to give the arrangement in St. John's every chance of working and in many respects it has. It's a phenomenal market. It's arguably the best market in the American Hockey League in terms of revenue production. But we made it clear that if it became challenging from a geographical perspective that we might have to look elsewhere," Chipman told reporters, adding he thinks St. John's has a good chance to acquire a new team even if the Jets do pull up stakes.

Chipman has good reason to want to keep Newfoundlanders happy. While the Jets have a contract to keep their farm team in St. John's through the 2014-15 season, Chipman said the earliest the Jets could move the team to a new arena being proposed for Thunder Bay would be for the 2016-17 season -- and, more likely, not until 2017-18.

That could create a gap of a season or even two seasons where the Jets might have to find some alternative arrangement for their AHL team. Chipman said his preference in that scenario would be to simply remain in St. John's for an extra year or two, but he agreed officials in St. John's would have to first be convinced of the merits of such an arrangement -- potentially a hard sell, particularly if they have another suitor looking to move an AHL team into St. John's.

Chipman said the challenges of having a farm team in the eastern-most location on the continent while his NHL team is now playing in the league's Western Conference have become daunting.

"It's just really tricky, particularly now," said Chipman. "If you can just imagine trying to get a guy from St. John's to Anaheim today. It would be tricky. We experienced it last week trying to get (callup Carl) Klingberg out to Calgary and back. It's tricky. I think (Jets GM) Kevin (Cheveldayoff) has been very consistent in saying how important the development process is for us.

"So really what this is, is from a hockey operation standpoint, to try and get our (farm) team closer to home. So that the travel burden is much less and, frankly, our organization can get in to see our players develop more frequently."

While Thunder Bay isn't exactly a major transport hub, Chipman said the accessibility is better than St. John's. "It's a market that, in many respects, is like St. John's, in terms of the size. There's a lot of growth that's starting to occur... It strikes us as a community that's really on the rise and it's a Canadian market, which really is our preference."

Chipman said the Jets are part of a group that also includes Lakehead University proposing the construction of a new 5,700-seat arena and attached convention centre for Thunder Bay. He stressed, however, that discussions are still "very preliminary" and nothing's yet been approved.

"Like I said, this is just getting started. This is an announcement of the City of Thunder Bay saying we're going to work towards a letter of intent, with this group, that we're a part of. This is early days, for sure."

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 22, 2014 C3

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