SUN Hockey Pool

Winnipeg won't give up!

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

WINNIPEG -- To be an NHL town again ...

Call them crazy, but hardcore hockey fans here believe a return to the NHL is a possibility if Gary Bettman can orchestrate a collective bargaining agreement providing the new economic order that teams insist they want and need.

It's a long shot to be sure, but in a city where many puck-heads still lament losing their beloved Winnipeg Jets at the end of the 1995-96 season and believe they belong in the best league on the planet, there is optimism.

Of course, if Bettman and his 30 franchise owners don't get a framework that lowers payrolls, allows for cost certainty and provides fans an affordable ticket, such talk is nothing more than pie-in-the-sky delusion.

If that doesn't happen, then fans, many of whom cheer for the Manitoba Moose draped in Jets jerseys, will have their hearts broken again and Winnipeg will remain an AHL town.

Then again, if the numbers don't make sense in a new deal, it won't be long before Edmonton joins Winnipeg, a small-market cousin since the WHA days, on the NHL-used-to-be scrap heap as a fixture in the Almost Hockey League.

Better Winnipeg gets back in The Show.

"The possibility turns entirely on the extent to which they get it (CBA) fixed," said Mark Chipman, governor of the Moose and chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns the new 15,000-seat MTS Centre downtown.

"It's not difficult to wrap your mind around it if they get it fixed to the extent most people think is required."

NEW RINK OPENS NEXT MONTH

Chipman and the Moose have been in business at Winnipeg Arena since the franchise arrived from Minnesota as an IHL outfit in 1996, after the Jets left for Arizona in an emotional exit that still stirs passions today.

With the $133-million MTS Centre, which will become home to the Moose on Nov. 17, Chipman and True North Sports and Entertainment will be significant players in any scenario that would see a return to Winnipeg by the NHL.

"Yes, we would be interested in being a part of it," Chipman said. "I don't know that we could necessarily manage taking it on all by ourselves. We would certainly be willing listeners to any proposals that might make some sense."

For investors here to even contemplate getting into the NHL sweepstakes, the numbers would have to add up.

- It would take operating with a payroll of no more than $30 million. That's $4 million less than the Oilers had last season. When the Jets left, their payroll was $17 million.

- A team would need a season-ticket base of at least 13,000 and an average ticket price of $50-$60. The Oilers, at the low end of the scale, had an average ticket of $65 last season. Jets tickets averaged $27 in their final season.

- There would have to be revenue sharing in conjunction with a salary cap, something Cal Nichols and Oilers ownership, the Edmonton Investors Group, supports.

"They've got a very strong ownership group that give it a great deal of strength," Chipman said of the Oilers.

"The discussions I've had with Cal and others, I understand how challenging it's been. In their view, and in the view of many other owners who I've talked to, it's going to have to be almost turned upside down."

As much positive as the new rink is - the MTS Centre has 50 luxury suites and will generate substantially more revenue than Winnipeg Arena for hockey and other events - it won't be enough to make the NHL viable on its own.

"Obviously, it's dramatically different," Chipman said of the facility. "It's 50 years newer. All 50 suites were sold in about a three-week period. There's 900 club seats and restaurants, all those things that would be necessary to support an elite tenant like an NHL franchise."

HOPE LIES IN NEW CBA

Even with a new rink, Jets jerseys in the stands and websites dedicated to the team, fans here won't get their hopes up until Bettman emerges from this lockout with a CBA that makes it possible for franchises like the Oilers to stay in business and cities like Winnipeg to get back into business.

"I think there's lots of people who are very guarded about it because of reliving the disappointment of the last go-round," Chipman said.

"I wouldn't underestimate this community, if it was given another opportunity, but it's an academic discussion right now because nobody knows what that league is going to look like."

If the economics don't change, fans in Edmonton will share the perspective of wishful thinkers here soon enough.


Videos

Photos