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Exclusive interview with Mark Chipman: Memos from the boss

Mark Chipman is as pleased as anyone the lockout is over. In an exclusive interview with the Free Press, the Jets co-owner reveals his feelings as he looks back on the CBA negotiations and peers into his crystal ball

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NEW YORK -- Mark Chipman spent the better part of a decade building his dream house and then, with his vote to support the NHL locking out its players, poured gas all over the mansion and set it afire.

Chipman may have been a little more slump-shouldered over the whole mess than some of the league's 28 other owners but he was complicit in the decision to postpone the season and put the Jets in a storage hangar.

On Wednesday, he was back in Manhattan to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the league's players.

One of the newest members of the league's board of governors, Chipman was in the background of negotiations until early December when he along with five other governors -- Toronto's Larry Tanenbaum, Pittsburgh's Ron Burkle, Calgary's Murray Edwards, Tampa's Jeff Vinik and Boston's Jeremy Jacobs -- were asked to take over negotiations.

Their efforts proved futile at the time but eventually much of the work done in December led the way to the final agreement.

Chipman has held his silence on the subject of the CBA awaiting ownership ratification. On Wednesday he agreed to a sitdown with the Free Press in New York.

 

Free Press: As a fan, you waited a long time to get the NHL back to Winnipeg, then you had to take part in postponing the season. When the lockout was announced, how did you feel?

Mark Chipman: Probably the same as everybody else did. When you grow up in Canada and in Winnipeg and are around the game as much as we all are, you develop a biological clock and you expect things to start to happen at certain times of the year. Being in the business of hockey, all the stages you go through, when the clock struck midnight on Sept. 15 it was an empty feeling. We should have been going into training camp with all the excitement around it. We came off the high of the draft and what we feel was a successful free agency period and then expected to have the players back on the ice to re-energize the whole thing. Then it was just sort of empty.

 

FP: How did the lockout effect you emotionally?

MC: I kept my emotions in check. I didn't find it useful to ride the wave of ups and downs. Having a pretty good view of how it's going, the things I thought about were trying to keep our organization on course and remain optimistic. I also knew this thing was going to end and ultimately be favourable for our organization and team in Winnipeg."

 

FP: You were one of the guys in that boardroom that voted to enact the lockout. Why did you do that?

MC: The business of hockey in its existing configuration wasn't working and there was all kinds of evidence that pointed to that. Some more obvious than others. The fact there were a number of teams not capable of breaking even in the system, not withstanding revenue sharing, was a problem. We had studied the league very carefully leading up to buying the team. I came to the conclusion the lockout in 2004-05 created a significant correction in the model but hadn't gone all the way. There were still big holes and they needed to be filled or the operation of a 30-team league was going to be fiction. Understanding the league still had a ways to go to fix itself, it was an easy decision to make. You separate the emotion. The CBA had expired and we needed a new one and it needed meaningful change.

 

FP: Is the NHL fixed now?

MC: That remains to be seen. It certainly is a lot closer. Is it optimal? I'm not sure yet. Let me put it to you this way, if this doesn't work by the time the deal expires, I'm not sure what the next step would be. This ought to give all the teams in the league a chance to be viable.

 

FP: There is a story of you telling the players during negotiations that whatever gains were made by ownership in the new CBA, will be poured back into the Jets organization in an effort to make the team a championship contender. Does the new CBA give you a better chance to be competitive?

MC: I think so. There is some short-term pain in this deal that wasn't anticipated, maybe this year and next. But the playing field is going to be more level in the short term and in the long term far more level. That's what this is about for us, the chance to be able to compete with the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers and Boston Bruins and all of those great and well-established organizations."

 

FP: Will you be a cap team now?

MC: It's certainly far more conceivable now. We won't be this year as our contracts are all in place. But this summer when we go into free agency we won't have the same restrictions we had placed on ourselves. I say that all with the understanding that this isn't all about spending money. What the new CBA does is give us an opportunity to invest in the augmentation of our team when it makes the most amount of sense. The objective is still to build out of the draft. The teams that have succeeded and won Stanley Cups, look at the Kings, that team was drafted and developed and then they added some important pieces to the puzzle like Mike Richards to push them through. I wouldn't want people to think just because we're in a better place that it's like we got a bonus cheque and are now going to go out and buy a new car or new wardrobe. We'll invest in the building and fan experience and all those things.

 

FP: Last year Zach Parise was on the market. Did you make a pitch? This summer, if there's a top free agent on the market will the Jets make an offer?

MC: No, we didn't make a bid on that player. We knew where that one was going to land and it didn't fit our model. Will we participate? Yes but it will depend on who that player is and what our needs are. If there are guys that can get us to the next level, absolutely we'll be involved.

 

FP: The Pittsburgh Penguins, for one, have apologized to their fans. Do you have words for yours?

MC: Obviously, I'm very sorry we were unable to start the season on time. We all have to share in the responsibility for this. I don't expect everybody to understand why we took the position we did. I don't regret having taken the position but I apologize for it having angered people. Having said that, I've been taken by the amount of support we've had in our community. The support we've received in Winnipeg has been unique in particular to what some of the teams down East have experienced.

 

FP: Did anyone cancel season tickets in Winnipeg as a result of the lockout?

MC: Not that I'm aware of. Maybe some guys that had a partial opted out of their internal arrangement but nothing that I'm aware of. No cancellations.

 

FP: How did you feel when you were invited by commissioner Gary Bettman to get involved in negotiations?

MC: Humbled. Curious as to why. It was more a reflection of how the league views our organization and our community. The league was really taken by how Winnipeg supported the NHL. Our market, our city and our organization is looked upon as something that matters. They are happy they are back in Winnipeg.

 

FP: What was it like sitting across the table from Ron Hainsey, one of your players?

MC: It was fine. I have a good relationship with Ron. I would say this -- I admire how much time and energy he invested in this process. He was there in the beginning and right to the end. I've told him this, I give him full credit for showing the courage of his convictions and I'm looking forward to talking to him again. Dealing with the players was a good experience.

 

FP: Will you try to speak with Ron and Andrew Ladd in an effort to get things back on course in terms of what is best for the Winnipeg Jets?

MC: For sure. It was a highly energized subject at times. They developed their own point of view. We saw it differently. But you can agree to disagree without making enemies. That's part of everyday life. There's no animosity. Laddy, to his credit, stood up in difficult circumstances as the captain of our team and spoke up and did well. If I ever took exception to what he said, it would have been far outweighed by the fact he had the courage to say what he believed in.

 

FP: Do you support Gary Bettman as the commissioner of the NHL?

MC: Very, very much so. There wouldn't be a team in Winnipeg but for Gary and I owe him for that and I always will. I also admire how he handled this very difficult negotiation.

 

FP: If revenue grows at a rate of five per cent each year over the next 10, the salary cap could be $80 million. Does that number scare you?

MC: No. I have to believe the economy will grow at the same clip. I was heartened to see in your paper last week the city of Winnipeg is expected to have the fourth most buoyant growth rate in the country. The province is really well positioned and has been for several years. We're a very viable NHL market now.

 

FP: Some people say if the Canadian dollar plummets to 80 cents the Jets will be in financial trouble.

MC: That's not true. The whole revenue share model mitigates the vast majority of a swing in currency for us. That's one thing we studied very carefully.

 

FP: Why didn't the Jets lay any employees off?

MC: I didn't think it was the right thing to do. Bear in mind this is a group of people who made extraordinary, crazy efforts in the purchase of the team. We had to move a franchise from Atlanta, another to St. John's and then we had to get the season up and running and then get through the season. To then turnaround and say, 'Geez, thanks, but we're cutting you back,' just didn't seem right. Secondly, we're a brand new organization and there was lots of catch-up to do. Lastly, I knew this was going to end and it wasn't going to be that easy to fire up the engines. I knew it was going to be a lot harder if we had to call people back to work, who may or may not come back. I don't think it should be viewed as an overly altruistic action. It was just the right thing to do. If the season had been cancelled, we would have re-visited it. But the people we have, you just don't replace. It would have been difficult on a number of levels to lay people off.

 

FP: What do you say to people that call you greedy?

MC: They don't know me, they don't know my partner, they don't know our organization.

 

FP: Is the honeymoon over between Winnipeg and the Jets?

MC: I don't think so. I think our building is going to be right amped up. Maybe some people won't be quite so energized. But I honestly think the people that are truly invested in our game, truly invested with their hard work and their hard-earned money, understand what our perspective was in this process. I know they were disappointed in not being able to watch hockey, as I was, but having lost a team due to a business model that was completely unsustainable back in the day and having gone through all the emotions that losing a team included, I think our fans are smart and they understand the game and business of the game. What we were doing equated to making this that much more sustainable long term and better for all of us.

 

FP: Now, when you look into your crystal ball, do you see the Jets in Winnipeg in 20 years?

MC: Absolutely. And beyond. Having a seat at the table in the National Hockey League is a privilege for me and our community and we'll fiercely protect it. Not only do I see us being in the league, what we see when we look into the crystal ball now is the way to win championships. That's what I hope will be the legacy in 20 years. That we'll have challenged and succeeded in winning the Stanley Cup.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2013 D3

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