TORONTO - After years of false starts and false hope, hockey-obsessed Canada may finally reclaim its lost NHL team as speculation heated up this week that the league is set to return to Winnipeg 15 years after it left.
In the latest twist to a saga that has tongues wagging over where cash-strapped NHL franchises could find a new home, the spotlight has shifted to the Atlanta Thrashers from a Phoenix Coyotes team that used to play in Winnipeg.
The Manitoba capital has been ready to roll out the NHL welcome mat before, only to have the rug pulled out from under them each time.
It could happen again, but all the signs point to a happy ending for Winnipeg hockey fans who have been put through an emotional wringer.
“It’s certainly been a roller coaster ride,” Chris Mackie, a Winnipeg engineer who started the fan website www.mynhlincludeswinnipeg.com, told Reuters.
“Life goes on without the NHL as we’ve learned, (but) it’s certainly putting Winnipeg and Manitoba back on the map of playing with the big boys.”
Billionaire David Thomson, Canada’s richest man, is part of the True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd group that is trying to bring NHL hockey back to Winnipeg.
Unlike Blackberry billionaire Jim Balsillie, who tried to muscle his way into the NHL lodge and was twice denied attempts to buy a team and relocate it to Southern Ontario, the True North group has conducted business under a cone of silence.
Reports show the struggling Thrashers have lost over $130 million since 2005, and with no local buyers the NHL has been forced to look elsewhere.
League commissioner Gary Bettman has long rated Winnipeg as a top candidate for relocation while deputy commissioner Bill Daly told an Atlanta newspaper he could not guarantee the Thrashers would even play in Atlanta for the 2011-12 season.
Murray Edwards, a member of the league executive and co-owner of the Calgary Flames, maintains that the NHL’s first duty is to try and keep the Thrashers in Atlanta but if the franchise must move there is no better market than Winnipeg.
“In the NHL there’s always a desire to work with existing franchises to make them stay and prosper in the markets they’re in,” said Edwards.
“If at the end of the day there is ultimately no local ownership, then the league would have to look to move franchise and I think today there is probably no market in North America that is more open and more supportive of an NHL franchise than would be Winnipeg.”
Winnipeg offers the NHL a rich hockey tradition while the economic conditions that forced the Jets to relocate have changed dramatically.
The Jets played 24 seasons in Winnipeg, starting out as part of the upstart World Hockey Association in 1972, before being absorbed into the NHL in 1979.
But after 17 uneven NHL seasons, the Jets ran into heavy financial turbulence given a weak Canadian dollar, an aging arena and spiking player salaries.
Today, however, the NHL has a salary cap and a rich new television deal, the Canadian currency is trading higher than the U.S. greenback and the city has a seven-year-old, 15,000-seat downtown arena.
But an NHL team in a small market such as Winnipeg is still seen by some as a marginal proposition.
“Whether the overall conditions are sufficient to bring back a team to the passionate fans in either city (Winnipeg or Quebec City) remains debatable,” Mario Lefebvre wrote in a recent a report for the Conference Board of Canada.
“Winnipeg might not be big enough to easily support both the NHL and its popular Canadian Football League team, the Blue Bombers.”