There will always be naysayers about Winnipeg and the accompanying shots about mosquitoes, the frozen tundra — in July — and this being the National Hockey League’s equivalent of a Siberian outpost.
But there can be little doubt now of the viability of this town as an NHL market and the support it will receive going forward from its hockey-crazed citizens.
That was never more evident than over the past four days as Winnipeggers, Manitobans and Canadians in general, gobbled up 13,000 seats as part of True North Sports & Entertainment’s Drive-to-13,000 season-ticket commitment campaign. And here’s the smoking-gun evidence to hammer home that support:
Having reached 7,158 commitments by Friday afternoon, the remaining 5,800 or so seats were snatched up in 17 minutes when they were made available to the general public in an online sale that opened at noon Saturday and had reached the 13,000 goal by 12:17 p.m.
"It sends a very strong message about this community," said True North president and CEO Jim Ludlow. "Most people, in the past, in some ways had discounted Winnipeg. The past 16 years has seen a very dramatic change for our community and for our organization in the past seven years (since the opening of MTS Centre). It’s a healthy, healthy day for everybody in Winnipeg.
"And it’s a very, very powerful message that goes out throughout North America to 29 other NHL cities. (Commissioner) Gary Bettman has issued a statement as to the power of this marketplace."
Said Bettman in a statement before Saturday’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final:
"While I had no doubt the Drive to 13,000 would reach its destination, the remarkable speed at which it got there certifies the fans’ hunger for NHL hockey and their commitment to True North’s initiatives."
The demand for tickets was so dramatic and intense that True North established a membership-only waiting list that included a non-refundable deposit of $50 per seat and that was quickly capped at 8,000 early Saturday afternoon. The bottom line here: Winnipeggers had spoken with their hearts about the return of the NHL in the years since the Jets left, but over the last week — which included a three-day pre-sale exclusive to Manitoba Moose season-ticket and mini-pack holders and corporate sponsors — they backed it up with their wallets.
"Many of us are beyond words to explain what’s happened in the past three or four days," Ludlow said. "This was one of the most anticipated on-sales that we’ve had in our history in Winnipeg so we did have a sense Winnipeggers would push through this very, very quickly.
"It’s suspended animation.. suspended disbelief... surreal... exciting beyond words, not just for me but for an entire organization."
The 13,000 season-ticket commitments, plus the 1,000 seats that are included with luxury boxes, means that just a few hundred tickets will remain on a per-game basis to the general public. The NHL requires a few hundred seats be set aside for players’ families and league executives. All 55 of the luxury boxes — ranging in price from $105,000 to $197,000 and requiring a seven-to-10-year commitment — have already sold out.
All of this does two things for True North.
It gives the franchise cost certainty over the next few years and helps guarantee sustainability.
It has to open some eyes with the NHL’s board of governors, who will gather in New York on June 21 to rubber stamp the sale/relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg.
"We lost our team a generation ago, so there’s been a generation of expectation," Ludlow said.
"This community has always had some thought that maybe this will happen again sometime in the future. In the past couple of years, there’s been the thinking, ‘Maybe we’re getting closer. We finally have a new building. We have an organization that seems to work.
"We have a community that has really responded and we were inching closer and closer.’ And when you get closer and closer, one day you step up, the weather clears and you’re standing on the summit."