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Opinion

Playoff hockey means you've gotta pay the price... to watch the Jets, that is

A photo of the CBC building in Toronto on Wednesday, April 4, 2012. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press files)</p>

A photo of the CBC building in Toronto on Wednesday, April 4, 2012. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press files)

It’s 25 years this spring since an NHL team based in Canada hoisted a Stanley Cup.

At 8-1 odds, the bookmakers will tell you the Winnipeg Jets are currently this country’s best hope to end the famine at a quarter-century.

What a story that would be — a small Prairie city with the smallest market in the NHL loses its team in 1996, gets another in 2011 and seven years later ends the longest Stanley Cup drought in this country’s history.

That sounds like exactly the kind of quintessentially Canadian story we as taxpayers in this country are paying the CBC $1 billion a year to tell.

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It’s 25 years this spring since an NHL team based in Canada hoisted a Stanley Cup.

At 8-1 odds, the bookmakers will tell you the Winnipeg Jets are currently this country’s best hope to end the famine at a quarter-century.

What a story that would be — a small Prairie city with the smallest market in the NHL loses its team in 1996, gets another in 2011 and seven years later ends the longest Stanley Cup drought in this country’s history.

That sounds like exactly the kind of quintessentially Canadian story we as taxpayers in this country are paying the CBC $1 billion a year to tell.

So why are taxpayers in this city — and across the country — being asked to pay an additional $10 per household on top of that to watch the Jets play the Minnesota Wild Wednesday in the first chapter of that potentially stirring tale?

And why is a public broadcaster — whose sole reason to exist is to tell the Canadian stories that no one else is willing to tell — instead showing an all-American series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers?

The answer, basically, is because Rogers-owned Sportsnet is calling the shots, not the CBC. And, also, the CBC is pointless. But more on that in a bit.

In case you missed it Monday, Sportsnet announced that the Jets-Wild series would be broadcast exclusively on Sportsnet — which requires a subscription beyond basic cable, costing about 10 bucks per month — while the Toronto Maple Leafs-Boston Bruins series will air on the full CBC network, which is included in basic cable and satellite packages and can also be watched free of charge with an antenna.

Jets fans, predictably and justifiably, are outraged: why do we have to pay extra to watch our team play, while also paying via our taxes — the annual CBC subsidy works out to about $27 a year for every man, woman and child — for Leafs fans to be able to watch their series free?

It is exactly the kind of story that touches every raw nerve we have in Winnipeg: it seems like we are being gouged, it seems like we are being disrespected and it seems like, once again, Toronto is laughing at us.

There is a measure of truth in all those things.

For starters, the idea you have to have a special Sportsnet subscription to watch this year’s opening round of the playoffs harks back to the days when Winnipeg fans were the only ones in the entire NHL who had to pay a special levee — $10 a month to TSN — to see regional Jets games.

That hated "Jets tax" — which was even higher for local businesses that wanted to show games — finally disappeared after a few seasons. And so to see it suddenly return now, in another form and at the apex of the excitement surrounding the club's success, is particularly loathsome.

And then there’s the whole respect issue. Sportsnet’s explanation for why the Leafs are on CBC and the Jets are relegated to Sportsnet was that the two networks — who partner all season on Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts, but with Sportsnet keeping the ad revenue no matter which network airs the broadcast — each wanted to show one of the two Canadian teams still alive in the playoffs.

And, "Winnipeg is a key priority for Sportsnet," a spokesman told the Free Press Monday, adding the network is "thrilled" to be broadcasting the series.

Now, the first part of that statement is no doubt true — Sportsnet paid billions for the NHL rights and airing a series with a Canadian-based team exclusively on their network just makes good business sense, forcing Canadian hockey fans to buy a Sportsnet subscription that the network hopes they will keep long after the playoffs end.

But the idea that Sportsnet chose the Jets series because they love us so much is laughable. The Jets were relegated to Sportsnet because the Leafs draw bigger national ratings and so it only made sense to stick that series on the network that has the maximum reach, CBC.

It’s the same reason the Jets and Wild play this week Wednesday and Friday, but the Leafs-Bruins play Thursday and Saturday: Saturday night hockey in Canada is a ratings bonanza and Sportsnet told the NHL they wanted the Leafs, not the Jets, playing that night.

It’s also the same reason Jets fans are getting screwed this week by early start-times (6 p.m. Wednesday and 6:30 p.m. Friday): Sportsnet is airing double-headers this week, with games to the west of us necessitating earlier-than-usual weeknight start times in these parts.

And if that means a lot of Jets fans who don't finish work until 5 o'clock or 5:30 and have almost no chance of getting downtown and in their seat for puck drop Wednesday, and maybe not even Friday, either? That’s OK with Sportsnet.

At the end of the day, Sportsnet is doing what you could reasonably expect any company that made a $5.2-billion investment to do: maximize its returns on a product that was expensive for them to buy and remains expensive for them to produce.

Nice things cost money. Yes, even in Winnipeg.

As for the CBC, it will do this week what it has done for years: soak up taxpayer dollars while airing content that is either the same as what you can get on American networks or an inferior Canadian imitation, with a few "eh’s" added in for authenticity.

Put it all together and I’d suggest the question that arises from all this isn’t, "Why are we being forced to give $10 bucks to Sportsnet," but rather, "Why are we giving anything at all to the CBC?"

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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