Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We can't deny it anymore -- NHL could return

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It's fast becoming apparent that Winnipeg might have to get over its denial when it comes to the possible return of the NHL.On Friday, as news spread out of the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy hearing that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman indicated that if the team had to be relocated in Canada, the league would favour Winnipeg over Hamilton -- the reaction, as always, was cautionary.

First, we stressed that Bettman's "alleged" comments came in the form of an affidavit quoting a third party, Coyotes' lawyer Earl Scudder.

Second, we stressed that Bettman qualified the statement, that "if the Coyotes had to be relocated to Canada," the NHL would prefer Winnipeg over Hamilton.

Well, turns out there's no need to stress anymore. According to documents filed in court, the Globe and Mail reported Monday that Bettman e-mailed deputy commissioner Bill Daly on April 4, after talking to Scudder, and wrote: "I told (Scudder) that at some point, if we don't have an alternative, I will have to start looking at the moving (of the Coyotes) option."

When Scudder asked about Southern Ontario and Hamilton, Bettman said, "I responded that it's a league opportunity, the building (Copps Coliseum) is too old etc. and, frankly, if this team had to move it should first be offered to Winnipeg."

Note that Bettman did not qualify the latter statement with a "if we have to move to Canada." He said if the Coyotes had to be relocated, they should be offered to Winnipeg. Period.

It really makes you wonder what the folks at True North Sports and Entertainment aren't telling us. Do you think the NHL -- which has several (probably more than we know) financially troubled franchises other than Phoenix -- hasn't lined up a list of potential locations in a worst-case scenario?

Do you think Bettman or Daly haven't called Chipman or a True North representative, or even met with them, to say, "Hey, remember when you guys (Chipman and TNSE president and CEO Jim Ludlow) flew to New York 18 months ago to pitch Winnipeg as an NHL city to our board of governors? Just wondering, are you still interested? Do you have the financial wherewithal to afford an NHL team?"

Of course, Chipman's group probably doesn't have the $212.5 million Jim Balsillie has offered Jerry Moyes for the Coyotes. But they sure would have the $130 million the NHL has been offered for the Coyotes by Chicago White Sox/Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

And even Reinsdorf's lone bid is a suspicious "letter of intent," reported to be a possible front for a franchise in Las Vegas. So what are the Coyotes really worth, anyway, given that the NHL probably has a few more franchises it's trying to desperately unload under the radar?

Chipman has always stated that he never wanted to bid on a single NHL team. The only way it might work for Winnipeg, he said, was if there were as many as three or four teams available in a buyer's market. And, most of all, it had to be stealth.

So while it might be difficult for even the most optimistic observers, maybe events are occurring that have officially opened the NHL's door for Winnipeg's return. All behind-the-scenes, of course.

And why should anyone really be surprised? After all, we've been talking about that possibility in this space for over two years, since the fundamental economic restructuring of the league, the new collective bargaining agreement where the players and owners become partners (with salary caps linked to revenue) and since the emergence of Canadian-based teams as the league's financial backbone.

We've also talked about the inevitable collapse of teams in non-traditional markets, such as the Coyotes, and the impending effects of a debilitating recession in America on already struggling NHL teams.

But it was always in the hypothetical. Always "What if?"

And given the sensitivity to the subject, always in the context that Winnipeg, if offered a team, would have to prove it could afford the NHL's significant dues long-term.

So here's a question: "What if" it's actually happening? Now.

What if the realities which have been long predicted have confronted the NHL in a perfect storm, as to make Winnipeg -- and this is a seismic shift -- a preferred location for Bettman?

Because that's exactly what Bettman's email to Daly said: "If this team had to move it should first be offered to Winnipeg."

And that was in a private email from a commissioner to his deputy, not just grandstanding at some all-star game, giving Winnipeg a shout-out because Bettman knows it would play well in the sticks.

And how could it have ended with that single email? Hence, shouldn't Winnipeg have already been offered the Coyotes, tentative to the team's future in Phoenix?

Besides, by every indication that can be measured by economics or common sense, it looks like the Coyotes aren't long for Arizona. A judge in Phoenix is scheduled to rule today on whether Balsillie can move the team to Hamilton or whether the Coyotes had ceded ownership to the league, which has been paying the bills since November 2008.

It's important to remember that Bettman and the NHL, for some perverse reason, would rather the Coyotes stay in the desert. Whatever. How the Coyotes can survive now, after all of their financial dirty laundry is being aired in court, is frankly inconceivable.

But it's even more important that for the first time since the Winnipeg Jets left for Phoenix in 1996, the commissioner of the National Hockey League is on record saying this city should be first in line for an NHL team.

Winnipeg, you can't deny it anymore.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2009 C1

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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