Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg is looking mighty fine

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The Young and the Homeless melodrama surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes aside, there appears to be a noteworthy development in regards to what NHL opinion makers think about little old us.

And that is, Winnipeg isn't dismissed -- or worse, ignored completely -- as a big-league hockey market anymore.

In fact, a decade ago, to even suggest that this city was NHL-worthy in a circle of league intelligentsia -- be they executives or media or hotdog vendors -- was to lose all credibility. Winnipeg was small-time, a backwater burg that didn't belong in a league with bigger ambitions. I mean, what would the Winnipeg Jets possibly bring to an NHL about to land a monster television deal and expand into exotic places like Atlanta, Phoenix, Nashville and Florida?

Besides, Winnipeg didn't have the coin for membership. That's why the Jets left, right? And the players had no use for the place, either, given that their gaze was fixed on the promise of riches in Gary Bettman's brave new world.

But look around now and that attitude appears to have gone the way of the California Golden Seals. Whether it's the cast of Hockey Night in Canada or radio talk show pundits or big-city columnists, the prevailing wisdom seems to be -- with a few exceptions -- that Winnipeg is the only logical place to stash the ailing Coyotes.

That's nothing less than a sea change in perception and it can't be understated.

The new mantra: Of course the NHL should come back to Winnipeg. That's where the hockey fans live and breathe. It's in the heartland of the game.

Funny thing is, Winnipeg hasn't changed dramatically since the mid-1990s.

Sure, there's a new arena and that's of great significance, but it would be the smallest in the NHL. Meanwhile, it's not like a boatload of millionaire hockey fans have rolled into town. They didn't strike oil at the corner of Portage and Main. And the Jets still failed in this market.

What has changed, however, is everything outside of Winnipeg. The loonie is at par with the U.S. dollar and the NHL has a salary cap. Canadian-based teams are bringing in up to 30 per cent of league revenue. So the NHL's financial landscape has flipped on its head.

And all those years of staring at half-empty buildings in non-traditional markets where teams are almost invisible? It makes the 10,000-something crowds at the Arena back in the day to see the Jets host the Hartford Whalers seem almost nostalgic.

In fact, it almost feels a little strange hearing someone like HNIC's Glenn Healy, a former executive with the NHL Players Association, say flat out the other night that the Coyotes should be relocated to Winnipeg immediately. Full stop. Interesting, because the NHLPA couldn't get out of Winnipeg fast enough. Us bumpkins were holding the league back. There were greener fields to be plowed.

Now all of a sudden it's closing time at Coyote Ugly and everybody's staring at Winnipeg wearing beer goggles.

It's not that our economy improved, it's that everyone else's got worse. (Did anybody else see that report Sunday night on 60 Minutes about people from Arizona simply walking away from their homes and mortgages because property values have dropped about 50 per cent? Wow.) It's not that we took more of a shine to shinny, it's that cities like Atlanta and Phoenix, to name just a couple, have been a disaster by comparison. And it's not that an NHL team in Winnipeg would generate more loot than the Leafs, but could it be as pathetic as the revenue created (or not created) by the Coyotes?

True, there's a new player in True North partner David Thomson, the Toronto billionaire whose name is getting thrown around these days like everybody knows him personally. That's a factor in the perception change of Winnipeg as a viable NHL market, to be sure.

But this is the ironic part: The entire philosophy of moving the Jets to Phoenix was to prove that hockey could sell in the south and that the NHL's financial future was to be cradled in the wealthy arms of U.S. television networks. It's proved just the opposite, to the point where a market once sneered at and left for dead is now widely viewed as the logical option for the Coyotes to find save haven.

Trust us, that isn't a little thing, and not just in the case of the Coyotes, but all the other failing NHL teams that are circling like planes that can't land at the airport.

So here's lookin' at you, Winnipeg. It's last call, baby doll, and you're getting cuter by the minute.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2010 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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