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Winnipeg will embrace team: capologist

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VANCOUVER -- As the Vancouver Canucks' resident capologist, and someone who's intimately familiar with the financial realities of the hockey business, Laurence Gilman understands there are practical considerations facing the NHL's newest team.

Then again, so does anyone who's spent more than five minutes looking at the Winnipeg market.

For whatever else it is, Winnipeg's population is barely 750,000 -- 751,000 if you include Boissevain -- which makes it minuscule by professional sport standards. The same is true of its corporate base. And its media outlets.

There are reasons, in fact, the Jets failed the first time around and a lot of the same challenges remain. So why would it be different this time?

It's a question Gilman, the hockey man, has asked himself. But Gilman, the Winnipegger has a much different take on the subject.

"I look at it through the lens of working for a Canadian franchise today and I think there's been a tremendous hockey renaissance in Canada," says the Canucks' vice-president. "I believe Winnipeg is an extremely fertile hockey market and I believe people in Winnipeg understand what they had, what they lost and the opportunity they now have. I believe they will embrace that opportunity."

And Gilman would know. Believe me, he would know.

On Tuesday, as Vancouver prepared for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, the NHL was busily upstaging itself, announcing its return to the frozen tundra after a 15-year hiatus. In 1996, the league turned its back on Winnipeg, convinced that it was bound for bigger and better things in places like Phoenix and Atlanta.

Turned out its reach exceeded its grasp in the Sunbelt. And now they're back where hockey is king.

As someone who started out as a fan of the World Hockey Association Jets and who eventually landed his first NHL job in the Jets' financial department, Gilman had a panoramic view of everything Winnipeg is and everything it's not. But, mostly, he understands its greatest resource -- the city's irrational love for hockey -- is difficult to quantify in terms of dollars and cents.

"It's the hockey heartland," he says simply. "And I think it's going to be a great thing for the people there."

Gilman was hired by the Jets fresh out of the University of North Dakota law school in 1994 to work on contracts. Naturally, his second summer on the job coincided with the Jets' crisis and the Save-the-Jets campaign climaxed with a massive rally at The Forks, the literal and figurative centre of the city.

There Gilman sat as first-generation Canadians, their accents still thick with the old country, pressed $20 bills into his hand and told him how much the team had meant to them. He watched school kids empty their piggy banks into Save-the-Jets buckets. And there he saw the city fight for its team, convinced that if they cared enough they would keep it.

That only made the final betrayal all the more heartbreaking.

Gilman has many memories from that summer. The most poignant concerns the day Jets president and co-owner Barry Shenkarow announced to Jets staffers the team was being sold to Phoenix. Shenkarow called everyone into the boardroom and said simply: "It's done."

Gilman then went back to his office, looked at the Winnipeg skyline, then looked around and saw every Jets employees in tears.

He had to stop to compose himself as he told this story.

"When the team left in 1996 and I went with it (to Phoenix), I would not have given any chance that it would return," he said. "But there's been so much change in the last 15 years and I'm extremely happy as a Winnipegger and a fan of the game."

There are others, of course. On this day, you just had to look around Rogers Arena at the people who had deep connections with the Jets. Eddie Olczyk, the kid from Chicago who loved playing in Winnipeg is here as a broadcaster. Kris King, the Jets' last captain, is here working with the NHL. Rick Bowness, a former Jets head coach, is an associate head coach with the Canucks.

The Jets are a part of all of them. They know what that team means to the city.

And, this time, they hope that's enough.


-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2011 C8

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