SUN Hockey Pool

Just win and the players are in

KIRK PENTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:01 PM ET

Looking at it only in meteorological terms, it’s like going from heaven to, well, a colder version of you-know-where.

In Phoenix and Atlanta you have palm trees, sunny skies, year-round golf and patios for as far as the eye can see.

In Winnipeg you don’t want sunny skies because that means the temperature could plummet to -40 C. The patios are buried under two feet of snow, and golf is still months from even being thought about.

If you were a professional hockey player, where would you want to live?

It’s a question that is one of the many subplots surrounding the potential relocation of the Phoenix Coyotes or the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg: Would players want to play in Manitoba?

We asked one NHLer, on the condition of anonymity, to give his frank opinion about playing in Winnipeg. His answer wasn’t what you might think it would be.

“Guys like to win, and they want to go to teams where they can win,” he said. “You look at cities like Atlanta, the New York Islanders … it’s not the location, but the chance to win.

“If you put a team in Winnipeg, the owner spends some money, is doing well financially and you have a chance to win, I don’t think it’ll be an issue getting players.”

In Calgary, Flames forward David Moss had similar thoughts about the Manitoba capital. Basically, potholes and frostbite appear to be less of an issue than some negative Manitobans might believe.

“If they’re going to have a good team and a solid franchise, why wouldn’t you want to go there?” Moss said. “Guys wanted to go to Edmonton when they were winning, and players will want to go there again. Free agents want to go to where they’ll win, and when teams are rebuilding they’ll decide to go somewhere else, where they feel they can win.”

Of course, some believe Winnipeg would be avoided by players if it were to return to hockey’s top league.

Prior to the trade deadline, CBC hockey analyst and former NHL netminder Glenn Healy said players with no-trade clauses were scratching Atlanta off their lists because they didn’t want to end up in Winnipeg. (The Sun tried to interview Healy to get more details about his statement, but he couldn’t be reached.)

You can count Coyotes forward Eric Belanger as one player who is dead set against a move to Winnipeg.

“Personally, and I won’t name any names, but I’ve chatted with guys that have played (in Winnipeg) and don’t want to go back,” Belanger told QMI Agency. “There are reasons why hockey wasn’t working in Winnipeg at the end, I don’t see how that would have changed.

“… There are good fans there, but Winnipeg is still Winnipeg. In January and February, I doubt that my family would follow me out there for a holiday.”

There are other signs that Winnipeg might not exactly be destination No. 1 among NHLers.

A recent CBC/NHLPA poll asked players where they wanted the next Canadian franchise to be located — Winnipeg, Quebec City, Hamilton or a second franchise in Toronto. A whopping 53% chose Quebec City. Winnipeg finished second, with 25% of the vote. The poll’s authors suggested Quebec City’s fine dining and nightclub scenes were the reasons for the city’s popularity.

Belanger wants to stay in Phoenix above everything else, but he prefers Quebec City to Winnipeg.

“It’s different in Quebec,” said Belanger, who is from Sherbrooke, Que. “There are the same fans, but the economy seems to really be rolling along. The guys that I talk to loved playing in Quebec. You can’t go to practice in shorts and T-shirts like I did this morning, but Quebec is attractive. At least there are things to do there!”

Added Belanger: “In the mind of the players it’s Quebec before Winnipeg, for sure.”

You know what Nigel Dawes is going to say about the issue, but he has the authority to speak about it. He grew up in Winnipeg, and he has played in both Atlanta and Phoenix.

“Everyone knows it’s cold in the winter in Winnipeg, but at some point you gotta look at the game and playing hockey,” said Dawes, who these days is bouncing between the Montreal Canadiens and their AHL affiliate in Hamilton.

“I’d rather go and play in front of 15,000 people who care and follow the game and know what’s going on rather than 5,000 to 8,000 people that might not necessarily totally know what’s going on.”

Dawes, who has more than 200 NHL games under his belt, appeared in nine contests for the Thrashers earlier this season, so he was a lightning rod for questions from teammates when there were rumblings Atlanta was heading north.

“Some guys were excited about the prospect of it and some guys weren’t,” he said. “But I think that’s what you’re going to find everywhere. It was the same when Hamilton was in the mix with getting a team. There were some guys who were totally against it, and some guys were like, ‘Oh, it’s awesome. Canada. Wherever. Doesn’t matter where in Canada.’

“I don’t think you’ll ever find one answer. If you did a poll, I’m sure it’d go from one end to the other.”

New Jersey Devils forward Travis Zajac is another NHLer who gets asked by fellow pros from time to time about his hometown.

“Guys have asked what it’s like, and I’m like, well, you need a jacket and tuque. Other than that, it’s good,” Zajac said. “It would be a great city to play in. The fans would support you. For me, it’s a great place to live. People are great, people are nice. I might be a little biased, but I’d love to see a team come back to Winnipeg.”

And hey, if the bulk of players decide to pass on playing for a Winnipeg franchise, Zajac has an idea.

“There’s enough Winnipeg guys in the league now,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe we could all get on a Winnipeg team and we’d be fine.”

PERILOUS POSITIONS
The situations in Phoenix and Atlanta
Phoenix Coyotes The Phoenix Coyotes are in danger of leaving Arizona because they went bankrupt, the NHL now owns them, and the city of Glendale is having trouble with the bond sale needed to finalize the sale to Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer.
Atlanta Thrashers The Atlanta Thrashers have been losing money hand over fist — $130 million over the last six years — and majority owner Michael Gearon said earlier this winter the team needs new investors to keep the team in Georgia.

 

What do players want?

TO WIN

“They want a good team to play on, first and foremost. They want to find a team that’s competitive, that has a chance to win every year.”

— New Jersey Devils forward Travis Zajac

“Guys wanted to go to Edmonton when they were winning, and players will want to go there again.”

— Calgary Flames forward David Moss

FAN SUPPORT

“To go and play in front of 5,000 or 6,000 people, it’s like you’re back in the AHL or juniors. You’re supposed to be playing in sold-out buildings all the time and having that fan base that can get you going on nights if you need it.”

— Former Thrashers and Coyotes forward Nigel Dawes

FRANCHISE STABILITY

“If you put a team in Winnipeg, the owner spends some money, is doing well financially and you have a chance to win, I don’t think it’ll be an issue getting players.”

— Anonymous NHLer

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

“There’s some guys who want their big contract and they want to go play and not have to worry about the pressure, and if they win, they win, they lose, they lose. But they’re collecting their paycheques and they’re good to go.”

— Dawes

GOOD HOME

“They’re also looking for … a community where their kids can grow up in and be safe. I think Winnipeg gives players that.”

— Zajac

A ROCKIN’ ATMOSPHERE

“I grew up in Winnipeg for five years actually and was able to go to a lot of Winnipeg Jets games that were rockin’ with the whiteouts and sellouts — all the good, fun times of before. When you see the change now and see pretty much an empty building on most nights it’s a little disheartening, for sure, as a player. You want the game packed, the game to be exciting and have some kind of atmosphere.”

— Dallas Stars forward Steve Ott

TO BE IN THE SPOTLIGHT

“There’s guys that want to go and couldn’t care less about how much they make, but they want to play in a city where they’re recognized and they can go out and people recognize them and they get to talk to them.”

— Dawes

THE POLL

CBC and the NHLPA asked players where they wanted the next Canadian NHL franchise to be:
City Percentage
Quebec City 53%
Winnipeg 25%
Toronto (2nd team) 16%
Hamilton 5%

 


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