Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg way ahead in NHL courtship

Quebec City missing the owner, the arena

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To suggest Winnipeg and Quebec City are competing for an NHL franchise is both presumptuous and ridiculous.

First of all, in the words of commissioner Gary Bettman, the NHL views relocation as undesirable.

Secondly, should the league be forced to make such a move, Winnipeg is years ahead of Quebec City in the relocation queue.

Setting aside the fact Winnipeg has an NHL-ready building and Quebec City does not, the relationship between True North Sports and Entertainment and the NHL has been carefully cultivated and slowly matured. It's ready to bear fruit.

In dating terms, Winnipeg has asked for the league's hand in marriage and nicely been told to wait on the porch while dad mulls it over.

Quebec? They haven't even been on a date, let alone done some of the back-seat wrestling True North and the NHL have engaged in over the last couple of years.

No disrespect to Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume, who we are sure is a fine gentleman, but to suggest his relationship is anywhere close to the one developed between the NHL and True North Partners Mark Chipman and David Thomson is, as we've already said, ridiculous.

Chipman and Thomson own an AHL franchise and are established as legitimate operators in the hockey world.

They've been on the block for a while and will remain for some time to come. Money is not an object where they are concerned and the NHL has shown they'd be happy to welcome them to the club.

A local politician? Any politician? Give me a break. Gary Bettman can't afford to tie his fortunes to someone who may or may not be around the next time a civic election is held.

But don't take our word for any of this. Mr. Bettman has already said as much.

This past spring he addressed the subject of relocation prior to the Stanley Cup final.

"You know our view on franchise relocation: We try to avoid it," Bettman said in Chicago. "And frankly, if we're going to move a franchise, there are a couple of places in Canada that I'd like to give my attention first, because when Winnipeg and Quebec lost their franchises -- remember, I always talk about three things for franchises: market, owner and building -- both of those teams were moved because two of the criteria went away. There was no building and there was no owner. Nobody wanted to own a team there anymore.

"To the extent that those markets are in a position to deal with those issues, I'd like to try and fix something that I wish might not have happened in the first place, not unlike what we did in Minnesota (the league replaced the departed North Stars with the Wild)."

Building and owner. Winnipeg has both. Quebec City? Nope on both accounts.

"Winnipeg, I believe, has an NHL building, and in Quebec they're talking about building one," said Bettman.

Where has the talk of an arena in Quebec City gone to this point? Nowhere.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper floated a trial balloon a week ago about helping to fund a new arena in Quebec and has been backpedalling like a defensive back ever since.

Bettman also went so far as to place his personal blessing on True North by telling the hockey world he'd been dancing in the dark with them for some time.

"There has been a lot of speculation about Winnipeg," Bettman said. "Winnipeg did make a bona fide offer (on the Phoenix Coyotes). We never concluded a deal. That offer was made by Mark Chipman and David Thomson as partners in True North and they're very comfortable with the process. They understood that the likelihood was that the team was going to be remaining in Phoenix. They wanted us to know of their interest and they have told us that they are prepared to be patient."

So there you have it. Sure, the NHL is happy to talk to the folks in Quebec City. But don't mistake polite hellos with the kind of heavy breathing that's gone on between Bettman's office and True North.

Winnipeg may never get another NHL franchise, but as of today and the foreseeable future, this city is first in any lineups for such movement.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2010 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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