Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

True North now has extensive to-do list

From ticket drive to payroll decisions, real work starts now

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MARK Chipman looked like a man who needed a big, fat nap. Little wonder, as the transaction to complete the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment wasn't officially signed off on until just before the sun came up Tuesday morning.

But here's the reality of the deal for the franchise co-owner and front man: the real work is just beginning.

Yes, with the NHL governors meeting and draft just three weeks away the franchise has a lot of items to deal with immediately on its to-do list. Among them:

-- Launch and complete 'The Drive to 13,000' season-ticket campaign that will help the NHL's board of governors make a decision at a meeting in New York on June 21st to rubber stamp the franchise ownership relocation to Winnipeg.

-- Finalize the hockey operations staff. Who remains on board from the Thrashers organization, who steps in from the Moose?

On that topic, Thrashers GM Rick Dudley signed an extension this winter and Chipman offered up this:

"I've known Rick for 15 years, we go way back to my first years in the International Hockey League. I have very high regard for Rick. I haven't spoken to him, expect to do so very shortly.

"Craig Heisinger, who has been our general manager and is responsible for a lot of that talent that is going to start playing for the Canucks (in the Stanley Cup final) will have a very significant role in our hockey operations. I don't know what title he'll have, but call it 'vital.'

"We owe it to Rick Dudley and the rest of that organization to get with them as soon as possible because they're people with families and expectations. We'll be turning ourselves to that right away.

-- Deciding on the name, logo and brand of the club.

Chipman: "That's one of the first orders of business. We will turn to it now."

-- Bringing MTS Centre up to NHL standards, as per a facility-standards agreement with the league.

There are currently 46 private suites at the building, that number will be increased to 55. As well, the price for a suite is expected to triple and top out at $197,000 a year.

The press box renovations will be completed this summer. As well, adjustments have to be made to the media workroom, visitors' dressing room and some seating changes necessary in order to meet NHL telecast requirements. Capacity will remain at 15,000.

"All the rumours about lifting the roof and putting in 2,500 seats in order to get to 18,000... those are unequivocally false," said True North director of hockey operations Scott Brown. "There are no plans to do anything like that in the future to this building."

Added Chipman: "We think this building is perfect. We thought it was the right size for the NHL when we built it. We had those conversations with the league before we built it. We studied the average paid attendance in the league and we thought if we could get 15,000 paid attendees in this building regularly it will work. I believe it will be (full) every night and for many years to come."

-- Relocating the AHL franchise:

True North will continue to own an AHL affiliate and is attempting to relocate it to another Canadian city in time for the 2011-12 season with St. John's, NL being the most-mentioned destination.

Chipman: "I expect we'll partner with somebody in another community that will actually run the business of it where we will be responsible for the player and hockey operations component of it.

"St. John's is absolutely an option, that's a fantastic hockey market. We played there for many years, they've got a great building and they'd love to get the American Hockey League back."

-- Deciding how much to spend on the player payroll (last year the Thrashers spent around $39 million, just slightly less than the Montreal Canadiens but in the lower half of team spending).

"We're going to start off building this team. We bought the ability to play in this league, but we're not going to buy a team this year. We're not going to run into the free-agency market and try to an instant team. We're going to build this team from the great core of young players that it has. We'll build around that through the draft, that's always been our desire, and that's how we're going to start.

"As we grow and see the opportunity to go to new levels, that's when we'll invest.

"We'll be a mid to lower cap team. That's what the team is currently and we'll build on that from that basis."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2011 C4

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