CHICAGO -- Patience is a virtue, somebody once said.
Tolstoy scribbled, "The two most powerful warriors are patience and time." And Saint Augustine opined that, "Patience is the companion of wisdom."
We're guessing none of these dudes was a hockey fan in a small-market Canadian city wondering if and when the NHL might return, teased by speculation and a name-dropping commissioner who, on Friday, came as close to endorsing Winnipeg as a future league destination than ever before.
For once, Gary Bettman didn't mince words. He didn't fall back to his default position of ambiguity that leaves so many Manitobans suspicious of the NHL's motives for discussing Winnipeg at all.
It was pretty straightforward, in fact. During his state of the union address prior to the Stanley Cup final, Bettman confirmed three pillars of a possible resurrection of the NHL in Winnipeg. First, there is a "viable" ownership group in waiting; second, the MTS Centre has the capacity to house a team; and third, the league now considers both Winnipeg and Quebec City as priorities over southern Ontario.
For a man who has so carefully tiptoed around the subject of Winnipeg -- or even failed to acknowledge the prospect at all -- Bettman delivered unprovoked confirmation that the Phoenix Coyotes would, in fact, be packing their bags for Manitoba this minute had the City of Glendale not capitulated to the NHL's demand of putting $25 million in escrow last Friday to cover the beleaguered team's losses next season.
Just as Free Press hockey writer Gary Lawless reported last week, the return of the Jets came within a whisker of becoming reality.
"They made a bona fide offer," the usually elusive Bettman said. "We never concluded a deal. And they (True North president Mark Chipman and partner David Thompson) are very comfortable with the process. They told us they are prepared to be patient."
Still, Bettman refused to put a time frame on when or if the NHL might come back to the Manitoba prairie. Fair enough.
But the genie is officially out of the bottle now. It used to be the NHL's return was not a matter of if, but when. Now it's not a matter of when, but what team.
Bettman has long maintained that his vague references to the Winnipeg situation were a matter of message control, that he was loath to stoke the flames of wishful thinking that typically roar each time the words "Jets" and "NHL" are mentioned in the same sentence. Clearly, those days of caution have evolved to the point where he will stand before the hockey world and not only praise the True North ownership group and defend their building, but pour water on the concept of a second team in Toronto.
"Frankly, if we're going to move a franchise, there are a couple of places in Canada that I'd like to give my intention first," the commissioner explained, referring to both Winnipeg and Quebec City. "I'd like to try and fix something that I wished might not have happened in the first place."
In the decade-plus of monitoring the possible return of the NHL to Winnipeg, that last sentence from Bettman is the most definitive public assertion that barring a 30-cent drop in the Canadian dollar, the die has been cast: The Jets or some facsimile will rise again.
Over the years, everybody and their cat has had an opinion about this subject -- sports writers, bartenders, politicians and bloggers. None of it really mattered.
Trust us, the only key that would unlock that NHL door was and always has been in Bettman's hands. And while the planets outside of Winnipeg have aligned -- the strong loonie, the disastrous results in some non-traditional hockey markets, the soaring financial strength of Canadian-based teams -- none of that mattered until the worm finally turned.
Even that new barn on Portage wasn't a deal-maker until Chipman's ownership group, working with stealthy determination, patiently (there's that word again) gained a solid foothold in the NHL's sometimes distracted line of vision.
To be sure, there is a constituency of Manitoba hockey fans who are still convinced Bettman is using Winnipeg as a pawn to hold poor saps like Glendale councillors hostage so they will pay any ransom. That might have been true to some extent in the past.
But on Friday, Bettman named names. He went on the record. When he finished speaking, there was no confusion about the league's future intentions.
Bottom line: Either the NHL is coming back to Winnipeg, or Gary Bettman is one of the most cruel, cynical and calculating individuals on the planet.
For the sake of hockey and humanity, I'd like to think it's the former.
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