Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dealing with a cold reality: Winnipeg a no-go zone

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It was an off-hand comment from an agent at the NHL entry draft in Pittsburgh last week, but to a Winnipegger it was like a punch in the mouth.

"Most guys that have no-movement clauses have a list of cities they won't go. Winnipeg is on almost all of those lists," said the high-powered agent.

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It is this reality that Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, and all those that live and die with this town's hockey team, must deal with when entering free agency each summer. The Jets don't have much of a chance in attracting the elite players. Zach Parise? Nope. Ryan Suter? Sorry. Shane Doan? Not even for sentimental reasons.

Maybe someday the Jets will be a contender and a top-end player will view Winnipeg as his best chance to win a Cup and choose to come here in his prime. But that's not the case today and despite having some of the best fans in the NHL and a hockey atmosphere that ranks among the best in the world, Winnipeg is not a destination city for the game's best players.

Cheveldayoff knows this -- it's why his draft-and-develop plan is not only sensible but crucial. The only way Winnipeg will ever have the best player in the game is if they draft him and bring him along. Keeping him will be another story.

Jets fans likely have some painful days ahead, when some of their budding young stars hit their free-agent years. Sooner or later a player that Winnipeggers watched struggled through his Bambi years before developing into a bona fide all-star as a member of the Jets will get a big-money offer from L.A. or New York and take it.

The ensuing sting to our self esteem will hurt. The cut to the Jets roster will likely be even more painful.

I know, it shouldn't come as a surprise. We all heard the uninformed comments of Ilya Bryzgalov and Eric Belanger two years ago when talk of the Phoenix Coyotes moving to Winnipeg was at its peak. Hockey players, and lots of people in our country who should know better, tend to look down on Winnipeg.

It's small, it's cold and the shopping isn't great.

People that haven't lived here don't understand what so many Winnipeggers do. This city is one of the best kept secrets in the world. We choose to live here and we love it.

Some hockey players, when given the chance to experience Winnipeg first-hand, will come to the same conclusion. Ondrej Pavelec and Jim Slater just chose Winnipeg and Zach Bogosian made no secret this season that he wants to sign long-term with the Jets.

The hockey culture, smalltown feel and yes, even the weather, are attractive to some players. The old Jets, players like Kris King and Randy Carlyle and Dale Hawerchuk, will tell you Winnipeg was the best place they ever played. The people of Manitoba gave the franchise a soul that players couldn't help but recognize and love. This same effect is building once again and if the money is comparable -- many players will choose to remain in Winnipeg as time unfolds.

But it's an insider's deal that must be experienced to appreciate and won't help attract newcomers. Especially those with 29 other options. Winnipeg just isn't going to be first on the list. Or, in some cases, on the list.

Cheveldayoff can't let this deter him. He needs to isolate the players he wants and make pitches. Maybe the first nine doors he knocks on don't open but the 10th does.

Using our supposed geographic disadvantage as an excuse is loser talk. It's Winnipeg's reality and the Jets must deal with it and find other ways to be successful. It does mean July 1 will likely be a bit of a snoozer for Jets fans but it doesn't mean this franchise can't thrive.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

saturday special : free agent preview C2-3

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 1, 2012 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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