Just cool your Jets

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 1:20 PM ET

We'd love to tell you the return of the NHL to Winnipeg is imminent, that it's just a matter of time before we're swimming with the big fish again.

Truth is, the prospect of bringing back major league hockey is growing dimmer.

The wheel of destiny that seemed to be rolling our way -- powered by the year-long NHL lockout, the resulting salary cap and the construction of our own new arena -- has not only ground to a halt, but started turning in the other direction.

That's not what the bring-back-the-Jets crowd wants to hear, but we're here to inform, not mislead.

What's turned the tide?

For starters, the situation in Pittsburgh, the only place a team is even up for sale.

There's a new resolve to keeping the Penguins right where they are, and it's coming from high places.

A few weeks ago, Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell unveiled a $315-million funding plan for a new Pittsburgh arena.

Under this plan, the team's future wouldn't be tied to a politically-charged decision on which group gets a slots licence for a downtown casino development.

Bottom line: it seems the Penguins won't fly, after all.

Whoever winds up owning the franchise will get their new arena, one way or the other. So you can strike the possibility of that team moving here, remote as it was, from your wish list.

Even more concerning to would-be Jets fans is the improved overall health of the NHL.

Left for dead when it locked its doors for a season, the old gal has discovered a second lease on life, coming back stronger than she's been in years.

Attendance this past regular season was up 2.4% from the 2003-04 season, the last before the lockout.

You might be surprised to see where the fans have returned.

Start in Pittsburgh, where Sidney Crosby stoked a jaw-dropping 33% increase. With a new, revenue-generating rink on the horizon, that franchise is a potential gold mine.

If that wasn't depressing enough, just check out the Carolina Hurricanes, always a popular choice to be the next team to collapse.

HURRICANES, PREDATORS UP

We should all have collapses like this: the Hurricanes saw their average crowd jump from 12,086 to 15,596, a massive 27% hike.

There's more: Nashville is up 10%, to an average of 14,428.

Florida, Phoenix, Atlanta, Anaheim -- they're all up. Not a lot, but weren't some of these supposedly "soft" markets supposed to buckle after 12 months without hockey?

Surely, that was the wishful thinking here. Well, it hasn't happened.

Oh, there are markets that took a kicking this season. But they were in St. Louis and Chicago, or on Long Island, and had nothing to do with being soft, and everything to do with bad teams. They'll bounce back.

Most people would agree two or three U.S. teams will have to sink before the NHL even takes another look at Winnipeg, or before a franchise becomes affordable for a Winnipeg buyer.

Where's the first one?

The worst news, though, for the NHL's return to Winnipeg is the same issue that took our Jets away in the first place: player salaries.

With revenue soaring, the team salary cap is about to increase, from $39 million this past season to some $44 million ($US).

And that means the minimum amount teams can spend is going up, too, from around $22 million to, say, $28 million.

See what we mean by the wheel turning in the wrong direction?

"The more the cap goes up, which apparently it's going to, the more the basement goes up," says Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports, which owns the Manitoba Moose and the new arena. "And that has all kinds of implications."

None of them good.


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