Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

True North's billionaire player

Thomson big part of any Atlanta acquisition

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A report over the weekend that an unnamed Toronto group is working on purchasing the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers and moving them to Winnipeg raises the curtain on the little-known -- and even less understood -- connection of one of the world's richest men to Winnipeg's MTS Centre and the team that resides in it.

While it was unclear who CBC commentator Al Strachan was referring to when he mentioned the Toronto group's Winnipeg interest during Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday, one thing that is certain is that such a group, if it really does exist, would have to include Toronto billionaire David Thomson.

That's because in addition to being the 24th richest man in the world, Thomson is also the very quiet part-owner of the MTS Centre, the Portage Avenue land upon which it sits and the team that plays in it, the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose.

Officially, Thomson is described as a "minority owner" through Osmington Inc. -- Thomson's real estate company -- of True North Sports and Entertainment. While True North is a privately run company and little is known about the company's finer details, it is known that Thomson and Mark Chipman, chairman of True North, have quietly bought out other True North owners over the years, to the point where they jointly own almost the entire company.

While officially a "minority owner," it's understood Thomson, through underlings at Osmington, does have a major say in True North decisions -- and maybe even a decisive say himself in some major aspects of the operation.

And that would presumably include any venture as bold as the purchase of a struggling NHL franchise in Atlanta and moving it to Winnipeg.

So here's a quick sketch of what we do know about Thomson and his connection to Winnipeg:

What Thomson and Chipman were saying Monday:

 Absolutely nothing. Repeated attempts to reach a spokesman for Thomson or Osmington on Monday were met with no response. This is typical of Thomson, who despite owing much of his empire to his family's newspaper holdings over the years is famously shy of the media and has a reputation for keeping his private business extremely private.

Chipman declined over the weekend to comment on the Thrashers story, consistent with his past practice of keeping mum on the assorted 'NHL coming to Winnipeg' stories that seem to pop up every few months. And that continued on Monday when Chipman declined -- through a True North spokesman -- to speak specifically about his relationship to Thomson and Thomson's relationship to True North.

Who is David Thomson?

Thomson, 51, is listed by Forbes, along with his family, as the 24th richest person in the world. To put that in context, Thomson's estimated net worth of $13 billion is more than personal computer titan Michael Dell (25th, $12.3 billion); Google co-founder Sergey Brin (26th, $12 billion); and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (32nd, $10.5 billion).

He has the title, 3rd Baron Thomson of Fleet, and is the son of the late media baron Kenneth Thomson. He is chairman of Thomson Reuters, a media conglomerate that his family controls and he also controls his family's investment arm, Woodbridge, and his own real estate company, Osmington.

What is Thomson's Winnipeg connection?

Thomson owes at least part of his empire to his family's former ownership of the newspaper you hold in your hands. The Thomson family owned the Winnipeg Free Press from 1980 to 2001, a period when the paper had huge circulation, a stranglehold on local advertising and consistently high annual profits.

And the profits continue to flow today from Winnipeg to Thomson.

Because True North is a private company, the public doesn't see its annual bottom line. But people within the organization have described a very profitable company, both in its operation of the MTS Centre and the Manitoba Moose.

Why would Thomson want to own an NHL team in Winnipeg?

That's the hard one to figure. His interest in True North is simple -- his real estate company invests in major holdings all over North America and makes lots of money doing it.

But it's a big jump from owning something as solid as a major downtown arena, ranked the third busiest in all of Canada, and owning something as tenuous as an NHL franchise in a city where the NHL has already failed once.

Could it be a "vanity play," a rich guy just wanting to own a toy -- and one that he could lord over his fellow Canadian billionaire and wannabe NHL owner, Jim Balsillie? Maybe, but it's hard to see what cachet Thomson would get from owning that team in Winnipeg. And it's interesting to note in that regard that Thomson has visited the MTS Centre what's described as only "a couple of times" in all the time he has been an owner of True North.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2009 B6

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