Relocation might not be 'Peg's only hope

KEN WIEBE -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. -- So now that it appears the Pittsburgh Penguins will not be vacating Pennsylvania after all, where does the NHL-to-Winnipeg pipe dream stand?

Despite the posturing by Mario Lemieux and Co., who suggested the time is drawing near for the Penguins to decide whether to stay or relocate to a place like Kansas City or Houston, reports here this week have Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell on record expressing confidence that a deal can be reached to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh.

This should come as no surprise. Despite all the knuckle-dragging, a new arena in Pittsburgh looks to be a done deal. The goal all along was to remain in the Steel City and that's what will almost certainly happen.

In all honesty, it has little to no impact on whether or not the NHL could return to Winnipeg anyway.

It was nothing more than a shot in the dark to think Lemieux and co-owner Ron Burkle could decide to move the Penguins to the MTS Centre as early as next season. In fact, there's absolutely no indication anyone from Winnipeg has even spoken to Lemieux or his partners.

However, what could spark some interest and discussion in the coming months was an interview that media mogul David Asper gave to a Toronto radio station on Tuesday.

Asper, who was in Dallas for the NHL all-star festivities, kept his cards close to the vest but did confess he would be interested in backing Moose governor Mark Chipman's efforts to bring a team to Winnipeg -- if such efforts exist.

Even if the Penguins don't move, relocation of an existing franchise remains a possibility. It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest a team like the Florida Panthers might be able to be more profitable in a hockey market like Winnipeg rather than in South Florida.

And that might not be the only possibility.

Whispers around the NHL suggest the league is considering future expansion, and no doubt Winnipeg will be a name thrown into the mix by many speculators.

The idea of increasing by two teams and moving to a balanced two conferences with two divisions and 16 teams in each has been floated in recent weeks.

Still, while all six Canadian markets seem to be thriving, there has been no real movement from the NHL governors position regarding the notion of bringing additional franchises to Canada -- they would be reluctant, to say the least.

The current aim continues to be to try to grow the sport in the United States, though it's clear that some of the struggling markets simply don't care enough to support their franchise.

So where does that leave Winnipeg?

Well, right now it stands as a solid American Hockey League market. It's best chance to land back in the NHL would be to entice a current owner to pull up stakes and make the MTS Centre home.

And the most likely model -- even with Mr. Asper stepping forward -- would be to have an owner relocate on the premise that he would remain involved in some capacity, probably as majority owner.

At this point, Winnipeg must still be considered a long shot, but the whispers just don't seem to want to go away. And those recent whispers could bring good news to those holding out hope.

Or it might simply bring heartbreak again.


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