Just a matter of time

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

Howard Bloom has never lived in Winnipeg, never seen a hockey game here and hasn't set foot inside the new, downtown arena.

But that doesn't stop the Ottawa-based sports business analyst from making a bold prediction about the possible return of the NHL to this prairie city.

"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that hockey will return to Winnipeg in the not-too-distant future," Bloom, founder of SportsBusinessNews.com, told The Sun. "It's a no-brainer. The NHL will return to Winnipeg. Much sooner than people anticipate."

Probably within the next two to three years -- five, at the most, Bloom says.

That'll be music to the ears of hockey fans here, many of whom must be watching the hyped-up return of the new-look NHL with envy.

But is it realistic?

As little as a year ago, there would have been little point in even debating the issue.

Two major developments in the last 12 months, however, have changed that.

One was the opening of the $133-million MTS Centre, a comfortable and perfectly functional, if not glitzy, 15,000-seat sports and entertainment facility that opened its Portage Avenue doors last November.

The building's primary tenant is the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose, farm team of the Vancouver Canucks.

The group that owns and operates the arena and the Moose, True North Sports and Entertainment, promotes its own concerts, ice shows, monster truck extravaganzas, wrestling -- there's even an NBA exhibition game coming later this month.

So business in Year 1 has been very, very good.

Still, it isn't good enough to even entertain the idea of paying a team of hockey players some $40 to $50 million US a season.

Which brings us to the second major change to the landscape -- the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement, which includes a per-team salary floor of $21 million and a cap of $39 million US.

To paraphrase True North chairman Mark Chipman: now, we're talking.

"It's within the realm of possibility," Chipman said. "A couple of the big variables that were necessary, arguably, are in place."

Chipman, part of the failed save-the-Jets campaign a decade ago, has crunched the numbers.

He knows, for instance, that in 1995-96, the team's last season in Winnipeg, the Jets posted a staggering $25 million operating loss. And that was with a payroll of $17 million US.

Of course, the average ticket price was just $27.

Still, that's an awful lot of ground for the new rink to make up.

"Lots of it can (be)," Chipman said. "It's a very different model now than what they operated under. For the next several years you've got some certainty in what it's going to take to operate a team. You've got a building that can generate considerably more revenue than the old one did.

"The unknown is whether it works here better than it does elsewhere."

Chipman says a year, maybe two, should determine whether or not all 30 existing franchises can live with the new system.

The outspoken Bloom doesn't need that much time to form his opinion.

"At the top of the list, the Carolina Hurricanes," Bloom said. "They have absolutely no future in that city. They're going to move as quickly as they can."

Bloom predicts Pittsburgh, Florida, Nashville, Atlanta, Anaheim, even Washington, are all headed for trouble.

"I think some of them have already decided," Bloom said. "The teams that were in trouble before the lockout are still in trouble. And they're probably in more trouble than they were."

Chipman says he hasn't been contacted by any of them, and expects them all to give the new deal a chance. That leaves Winnipeg hockey fans a choice: they can either throw their hearts into Bloom's brazen prediction, or take the wait-and-see approach of Chipman, who won't guarantee, or rule out, anything.

"It's still academic to a certain extent," Chipman said. "We've got more pieces to the puzzle, but not all of them."


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