NHL move to Winnipeg 'a step back'

Hockey fan Gerry Sawatzky yells at the intersection of Portage and Main in Winnipeg, Man., May 19,...

Hockey fan Gerry Sawatzky yells at the intersection of Portage and Main in Winnipeg, Man., May 19, 2011 following a media report that the Atlanta Thrashers had been sold to a Winnipeg business group. (BRIAN DONOGH/QMI Agency)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:14 PM ET

TAMPA - The NHL is going back to Winnipeg for one reason and one reason only.

It's not because it is a place where hockey "matters," as so many like to say.

It is not because of Manitobans love of the game.

Or because it is a desirable market (quite the opposite).

The reason is this: Faced with the choice of contracting the Atlanta Thrashers or moving to Winnipeg, the NHL is holding its nose and will back up the moving vans.

Not that the good people of Manitoba should care why they are getting an NHL team back, only that they are.

Make no mistake about it: As much as this is good news for the people of Manitoba, this is a setback for the league.

There is, of course, euphoria in the Manitoba capital and in many corners of Canada.

Around the NHL?

Said one former league marketing executive, now employed by another sports league, when asked for some perspective on Winnipeg's return: "Our worst draw every year was Winnipeg. Nobody wanted to go there. Nobody wanted to play there. Wives hated it. That was an opinion shared throughout the league."

The move to Winnipeg is not only a step north, but a step back for the NHL.

"You can say it's a step back. It probably is," said another league insider, "but not contracting a team is a victory."

The Jets left for Phoenix when the league's economics outstripped the city's ability to support an NHL team. Now Winnipeg is poised to get a team back for the very reason the Jets left town and the Thrashers are available: Nobody in the marketplace wanted or wants to own them.

There are plenty of hockey people who believe having an NHL team in Manitoba makes no business sense whatsoever. There will be little money in local broadcast rights because of the size of the market. Atlanta is the eighth largest television market in the U.S., with 2.4 million households, twice as many households as there are people in Manitoba. Losing Atlanta is a blow for the league, no question.

The size of the MTS Centre is also a detriment to success.

"I hope the owner there can pull a rabbit out of his hat," said one QMI source, who works in the business of evaluating professional sports franchises and the markets in which they play. "It's conceivable with the right ticket campaign they could sell out every game before the first season starts. But (the Thrashers) are a franchise that has never won a playoff game. If that continues and the novelty wears off and its minus-30 in Februrary, people are not going to be going out to watch the Florida Panthers. Are they going to warm up their cars to go see Carolina on a Tuesday night?

"Let's round it up and call it 16,000 (capacity). If you have 16,000 one night for the Leafs and 10,000 -- almost 75% capacity -- the next for the Panthers, that's a total of 26,000 for two games and an average of 13,000. That's not going to cut it. You might as well own the team in Atlanta."

It's interesting to note that the Nashville Predators were 21st in the league in attendance with an average of 16,142 this past season.

A Winnipeg franchise will likely dip into revenue sharing and does not move the needle here in the States.

But, all that said, the NHL doesn't have any options.

This corner into which it is painted right now is at the intersection of Portage and Main.


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