NHL dream still simmers in Winnipeg

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:54 AM ET

Ten years ago this week, the NHL signed off on the transfer of the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix and proved that nothing is quite so overrated as closure.

Far from being a dead issue, the idea of NHL membership still vexes Winnipegers like a curse.

Should the NHL come back? Could it?

The Jets' departure was a symbolic one, an exodus from a small sleepy market to a Sun Belt city tripping over itself with growth. Winnipeg has 650,000 souls, half as much as Phoenix proper. With the move, the league finally was turning the page on its bumpkinish WHA roots.

But there are 364 more municipally maintained outdoor skating rinks in Winnipeg than in Phoenix. You could skate on a different rink every day of the year if the weather held.

The city has prospered without the Jets. A new downtown arena, the MTS Centre is the third busiest facility in the nation and it has reinvigorated the downtown. The minor hockey system still is churning out graduates.

About 9,800 kids play minor hockey in Winnipeg, down a touch from the 10,000-11,000 of past years.

News this week that Mario Lemieux would entertain all offers for the Penguins garnered major news in Winnipeg. The lure of the NHL remains and the city will be jolted with every sabre rattled by an American-based owner. No one has forgotten what it was like to have a city that, for a time, ran with the brightest cities on the continent.

"It was nice to look at a ticker and see Winnipeg right there beside New York," said Vic Grant, the Jets' longtime colour man. "But as much as the city fought to keep the Jets, when the sea of white came to say goodbye, there was no crying over spilled milk."

Indeed, the city's hockey interest remained strong after the Jets flew to Phoenix. Local businessmen had an International Hockey League team in place by the next year.

Winnipeg has proven itself an excellent minor-league city. Manitoba Moose owner Mark Chipman built the arena for $140 million for his American Hockey League team. Of that, $40 million was in public money.

The facility holds 8,812 after the upper bowl is draped off. The Moose recorded 22 sellouts last season, the first full year of the rink, but only two this season. The facility's 50 luxury boxes sold out rapidly.

Chipman built the MTS Centre to accommodate 15,000, a number that would normally underwhelm NHL types. But most NHL rinks don't attract that many patrons on most nights. The arena size, on its own, probably doesn't disqualify Winnipeg should a Pittsburgh or any other U.S. franchise want to relocate.

That said, Chipman, at 45 already one of the city's leading business people, confesses to a certain ambiguity.

There is no data, pro or con, that Winnipegers will pay for tickets. Even in their heyday, the Jets never averaged more than 13,000 per game.

"Winnipeg works because of the collective will of the people who live here," Chipman said. "They want to make it work. There are easier places to live. Having the NHL here would just make it better."

But would it work?

"I know how much a club would cost and how much it would cost to operate," Chipman said. "But I don't know if the quantity of revenue would be here."

Said Winnipeg Minor Hockey executive director Dianne Woods: "We would all love to have NHL hockey back. I'm just not sure it's a realistic dream."


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