NHL dream still alive

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 12:24 PM ET

Ten years ago, you could have summed up the Winnipeg pro sports scene in one word: a mess. The soon-to-be-defunct Jets were losing millions of dollars, the Blue Bombers were on their way to the critical list and the Goldeyes were a round peg trying to fit into a square hole, also known as Winnipeg Stadium.

A decade later, you'd think you were in another city.

Our hockey owners are actually making money in a spiffy, new arena; the Bombers, nearly debt-free, are spearheading a similar move; and our six-year-old ball park is one of the places to be on a summer night.

"I can't remember a time when all three of those franchises co-existed like this, and appeared to be as profitable as they are now," Manitoba Moose owner Mark Chipman said.

So what does the future hold?

Sun sports columnist Paul Friesen continues his three-part look at the next 10 years of pro sports in our city.

Today, he hits the ice for a cold, hard look at hockey, and tries to answer the question on every fan's mind: Will the NHL be back?

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How can you look at the future of pro hockey here without a nod to the past, and that four-letter word -- J-E-T-S?

It's a topic Manitoba Moose owner Mark Chipman used to treat like a heavy check from behind, doing his best to avoid it.

These days, though, with a new, 15,000-seat arena on Portage Avenue as his winger, Chipman isn't afraid to get his face slammed up against the glass.

Yes, he's spoken with high-ranking NHL officials and let them know he's interested in having Winnipeg rejoin their exclusive club. Nothing formal, mind you, but they've talked.

"Let me put it this way -- they know we're here," Chipman told The Sun. "They know we have a new building, and are aware of the fact that if someone was interested in putting a team here, we would be ready to engage anybody in having that conversation."

A word of caution, though. Several things would have to happen.

The good news: one already is.

For hockey fans here, the labour showdown between the owners and players may as well be Jets vs. Oilers, Game 7 -- everything is on the line.

Because without a salary cap of around $30 million US and revenue sharing, we don't stand a chance.

"Everybody I've talked to can't say for certain what's going to happen ... to what extent they're going to get it fixed," Chipman said. "If that materialized ... we're in a pretty sound position."

Step 2 -- acquiring a team.

Buying one outright could get awfully expensive, and Chipman says he'd need a larger group of owners to do that.

It might make more sense for an existing franchise to either rent the arena or, more likely, join forces with Chipman's True North Sports, which owns it.

"They might want some local ownership (in the team), in which case our existing group could probably support being a part of that kind of arrangement," he said.

Gaining NHL approval shouldn't be a problem, Chipman says, as long as the business plan adds up.

CONCERNS

"That would be the least of our concerns," he said. "I don't think the NHL or (commissioner) Gary Bettman has anything against Winnipeg or is opposed to the notion of a team being in Winnipeg. If it works."

Which brings us to the last piece of the puzzle -- selling luxury suites and some 13,000 season tickets at a price Winnipeggers aren't used to paying, perhaps $70 per game, on average.

Let's face it, we can rally and chant Go Jets Go until we're blue and white in the face, but no businessman worth his weight in hockey pucks is going to take the leap of faith without knowing that money is in the bank.

"That'll be a very interesting exercise to go through," Chipman said. "If everything else lined itself up ... you could probably put it to the community and find out pretty quick whether or not that would fly."

If it didn't, we could put this debate to rest, once and for all.

Winnipeggers deserve that chance, and I'm starting to think they'll get it.

The NHL is on death row in some southern U.S. markets. Some owner, somewhere, is going to see our city as a real alternative.

Only then will we find out if that's a heartbeat we've been hearing, or simply the hollow thumping of fists on a casket that should have been buried years ago.

E-mail Paul at pfriesen@wpgsun.com or phone 632-2788.


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