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Opinion

Hockey school

Jets co-owner Chipman learning lessons on playing the NHL game

Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/1/2016 (1151 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mark Chipman went to St. Paul’s High School. So did I.

He turned out a little more successful than I did. But what we both had drummed into us by the Jesuits all through high school is our purpose on this planet is to be a “man for others.”

It’s a simple Jesuit idea: the meaning of life is a life with meaning, and the route to finding that meaning is to be of service to those around you.

Again, Chipman embraced this concept a little more fully than I did.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/1/2016 (1151 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mark Chipman went to St. Paul’s High School. So did I.

He turned out a little more successful than I did. But what we both had drummed into us by the Jesuits all through high school is our purpose on this planet is to be a "man for others."

It’s a simple Jesuit idea: the meaning of life is a life with meaning, and the route to finding that meaning is to be of service to those around you. 

Again, Chipman embraced this concept a little more fully than I did.

I cut my neighbour’s lawn; Chipman is rebuilding Winnipeg’s downtown, one block at a time. 

But what happens when a "man for others" finds himself owning a team in a league in which all the players are in it for themselves?

He gets a little disillusioned.

Chipman doesn’t often speak in public about the business of owning the Winnipeg Jets — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman taught him well about the dividends of silence.

Going about your business quietly is the reason Chipman owns an NHL team and former franchise-ownership suitor Jim Balsillie doesn’t. And it’s why even five years into Jets 2.0, this is still arguably the most buttoned-down team in the league.

And so it was interesting to hear Chipman speak about the frustrations of owning the Jets during a rare public appearance last week at the Manitoba Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association annual dinner.

"It’s a beautiful game and that’s the best part of it. But the business of professional hockey is challenging, it’s tough," Chipman said during a question-and-answer session conducted by Dennis Beyak of TSN.

"For example, we have a great relationship with our players. We really do. And I think in our group, we have a particularly great group of young men. What’s frustrating about it is you build these relationships and then it ultimately comes towards the end of a contract," Chipman said.

"And when it comes towards the end, you feel the investment both sides made in the relationship gets difficult because it’s so often about money. And you’re not really dealing with the person with whom you built the relationship — you’re dealing with the person who represents them. And that’s tricky some days.

"And it’d be easy to say, ‘Well, it is what it is and that’s just the way it’s going to be.’ But I don’t know it has to be that way. I’ve learned there’s a reason (for the) level of trust we have with our players — you can find the source and the root of it. And without being overly philosophical, there’s a reason why (former NHLPA executive director) Alan Eagleson went to prison. There really is. He literally stole from the players who trusted him," Chipman said.

"And I honestly feel to this day that undercurrent still exists — that there isn’t that real level of trust you wish existed. I think those are things that could improve, and will improve. But it’s just going to continue to take time."

If that sounds to you like a man who has grown frustrated with his club’s ongoing contract talks with Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, you’re not the only one.

The brass-knuckle talks Chipman finds himself currently mired in with Byfuglien and Ladd are a cold, hard slap in the face for a man who has done everything possible to make big-league hockey work in this city.

In Chipman’s world, the NHL works in Winnipeg to the benefit of everyone — but only if we all pull together for a common purpose.

Fans pay big ticket prices, some of the highest in pro sports; small local companies pay big-city prices to sponsor the team; the local media and broadcasters throw their full weight behind the club; and, as long as salaries are kept manageable, the team works in Winnipeg on the thinnest of margins.

Currently, the Jets have the lowest player-salary structure (their current projected salary-cap hit of US$60,103,706 is 30th in the 30-team NHL). But their struggles this season aren’t because they’re not paying players enough.

Of the 10 teams with the lowest cap hit in the league, four are in a playoff position at the all-star break, including the Arizona Coyotes, who are 29th in terms of salary cap.

So it can be done: a modest payroll can beget a playoff team in today’s NHL. You can look it up.

But it doesn’t work — at least not in Winnipeg — if Chipman has to sign off on six- and eight-year contracts, worth US$42 million and US$55 million apiece, just to keep pending unrestricted free agents Ladd and Byfuglien, respectively, on the team.

To hear Chipman explain it last week, it sounds like he feels if he could just sit down alone in a room with Byfuglien and Ladd, the three could all hammer out a deal over a couple of scotches, just as players and owners did in the good old days. But high-powered agents have replaced Glenfiddich in today’s NHL and every player’s loyalty has long since been put up for auction to the highest bidder.

Chipman has made Ladd and Byfuglien two of the richest men in the city over the course of the last five years. But if not here, they’d have found someone else, somewhere else to make them multimillionaires.

In that world view, Byfuglien and Ladd owe Chipman nothing.

But the reverse is also true: the notion has been advanced in recent weeks that the Jets somehow owe something more to their captain than to unceremoniously run him out of town in a deadline trade.

That’s absurd. The Jets owe Ladd nothing more than the next installment of his massive paycheque. If the team captain would genuinely like to continue to play in Winnipeg, he could direct his agent to get a deal done tomorrow.

But Chipman has a bigger picture to look at. Even with NHL salaries what they are (and with the cap about to rise significantly for the 2016-17 season) the Jets continue to operate on thin margins.

(Privately, I’ve been told the Jets have argued for years with Fortune magazine about the methodology it uses to rate NHL franchises that has resulted in the magazine more than doubling the value of the Jets in the last five years to US$350 million. The Jets say the numbers Fortune uses are out of whack and the franchise is nothing like the cash cow the magazine describes.)

Now, none of this is to anoint Chipman a saint.

And Chipman’s partner in the Jets, Toronto billionaire David Thomson? Well, you don’t get to be the richest person in Canada by being a nice guy all the time. (Ever hear the one about the time Thomson served divorce papers on his second wife, Laurie Ludwick, just hours after she was released from hospital following the birth of the couple’s son?) 

Brass knuckles? Yeah, Chipman and Thomson have tried on a set or two over the years.

But having said all that, it’s also undeniable Chipman and Thomson have done their very best with this NHL franchise to make this city a better place.

Thomson doesn’t need the money (good Lord, he doesn’t need the money) and Chipman doesn’t need the hassle (good Lord, he doesn’t need the hassle). And neither man owns this team as a vanity play, a shiny bauble they can show off as so many other owners of North American pro sports franchises do.

Sure, they own it because it’s fun, and they own it because in the long run and bigger picture it could prove to be a profitable investment. But as much as anything, their ownership of this team — and our generosity in support of it — makes our little corner of the world a brighter place in the depths of a Winnipeg winter.

Football has always been the Jesuit sport. But in this city, it’s hockey that has proven their point best.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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History

Updated on Monday, February 1, 2016 at 2:31 PM CST: Edited.

February 3, 2016 at 1:21 PM: Edited.

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