Hawerchuk likes idea of NHL return to 'Peg

RAYMOND BOWE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:30 AM ET

BARRIE, ONT. - Barrie Colts head coach Dale Hawerchuk, perhaps the greatest player to suit up for the Winnipeg Jets in the NHL, says the timing may be ripe for the Phoenix Coyotes' return to Canada.

"There are a lot of things in their favour right now, including the free marketing Canadian cities get with TSN, Sportsnet, The Score, radio shows," he said. "It's never-ending. You go to get your muffler or teeth done and what's on the TV?"

Hawerchuk captained the Jets from 1984 to 1989, and had his best offensive seasons as a Jet, including a 53-goal, 130-point campaign in 1984-85. He was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in 1990, six years before the team went south amid financial struggles.

There was talk when Hawerchuk played in Winnipeg that the team could move to Phoenix, something players jokingly welcomed due to the long, cold Manitoba winters.

"It's funny how the tables have turned all of a sudden," he said.

According to the Winnipeg Sun, attempts to keep the team in Phoenix are becoming desperate. The sale of the team to Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer is reported to be hanging by a thread, with an Arizona taxpayer watchdog group threatening lawsuits to derail a publicly funded deal.

"Time is running out," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday. "We're getting close to the end."

The Hulsizer deal is believed to be worth $170 million, $100 million of which would be fronted by a City of Glendale (where the arena is located) bond sale.

However, Bettman said there are other options aside from moving the Coyotes back from whence they came. He provided no specifics.

The Jets were launched in 1972 as part of the upstart World Hockey Association, but joined the NHL in 1979. Two dreadful seasons resulted in Winnipeg securing the top draft pick in 1981, which turned out to be rookie of the year and future Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, whose No. 10 was raised to the Phoenix rafters in 2006.

Hawerchuk's fondest memories of Winnipeg include his first NHL game, scoring his 50th goal during the 1984-85 season, playoff runs and the memorable "white outs" where fans waved white towels.

"But my biggest memory is just the people," said the 47-year-old Toronto native. "The Manitobans miss their Jets, they miss their NHL hockey. The people of Manitoba love the game. In my mind, it would add so much more to the city.

Hawerchuk was playing in Buffalo when the Jets flew south to Arizona, but says he jas always had a soft spot for the city where his professional career took off.

"I remember when it was game day, the city was buzzing," he said. "It's a great Canadian hockey town. It's as simple as that. I enjoyed my time there, I was there nine years."

Hawerchuk retired in 1997 after amassing 518 goals and 1,409 points in almost 1,200 NHL games, while also maintaining almost a point-a-game clip in the playoffs.

Barrie resident Jeff Riddall grew up about 45 minutes northeast of Winnipeg, near Tyndall, population 400. His memories of the Jets date back to the WHA days and games at the old Winnipeg Arena.

"When the Jets became an NHL team, it was like they'd reached the pinnacle. It was huge," he said.

Riddall wasn't living in Winnipeg when the team pulled up stakes, but distance didn't dampen the pain, either.

"That was a killer," he said. "Obviously, I was pretty bitter. Most fans in Winnipeg felt that they weren't leaving because there weren't fans. They were leaving because there wasn't the corporate support."

Winnipeg Arena opened in 1955 and was demolished in 2004. It could hold 15,565 spectators for hockey. The old barn was replaced by the MTS Centre, which has a capacity of 15,015.

"I've always thought (the NHL) would go back there," Hawerchuk said. "The big hiccup people always talked about was sponsorship and corporate support. But to be honest, the big problem we had in Winnipeg was the arena. They've got a great new facility downtown and it's state-of-the-art."

Winnipeg resident Blake Crothers, who spent four years in Barrie studying business marketing and graphic design at Georgian College, says the MTS Centre is "first-class." He believes the city is prime for the big leagues.

"During the last recession, we kind of skated by it, whereas everyone else around Canada and North America really got hit," said the father of two young children.

Despite some level of economic prosperity, it still has to be an affordable ticket.

"Will Winnipeggers shell out a hundred bucks for a ticket 41 times a year? But we have a lot of people coming out to Blue Bombers games and they're not cheap, either," Crothers said.

The NHL landscape has changed immensely since the mid-1990s, a time when the Canadian dollar hovered around 60 cents US. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) also helps the poor teams by providing revenue-sharing, not to mention television broadcasting deals.

Many things seem to be going Winnipeg's way.

The Jets' possible return is often the talk around the water cooler, Crothers said, but Winnipeggers have seen it all before.

"They don't want to get their hopes up," he said, adding people are tired of being let down. "They've taken one on the chin too many times. Rumours run rampant whenever there's hope of an NHL team coming back."

Riddall puts the odds of Phoenix returning to Winnipeg at 60%.

"I've always said I'll believe it when I see it, but if it happens, I'll be on a plane to go back and watch that first game," said Riddall, who has lived in Barrie for eight years.

Winnipeg has grown substantially since the Jets left town. It now has a population of about 700,000 people.

"Other than the cold and the mosquitoes, it's a great place to live," Crothers said.

While some detractors insist Winnipeg is simply too small for an NHL team, Hawerchuk — who met his future wife there — says the size was a big part of the allure.

"Like any Canadian city, if you play on an NHL team, people know who you are," he said. "There's no hiding in that city, which is good and bad, I guess. It was a lot of fun.

"Sometimes you'd go to get groceries and it'd take you two or three hours," Hawerchuk added. "Everybody wants to talk to you. There's nothing wrong with that, but when you're young, you think you'd better be on your best behaviour all the time. But Manitobans are so down to earth, you just need to be yourself."

Hawerchuk says he stays in touch with some of his former teammates, including Dave Ellett, Randy Carlyle and Scott Arniel, not to mention some of the people he met along the way.

Riddall suspects NHL hockey will return to Winnipeg at some point.

"That's just the way it seems to be going," he said. "And there's more than the Coyotes out there who are in trouble."

Other teams believed to be on thin ice include the Atlanta Thrashers, Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders and Nashville Predators.

Anytime another NHL franchise falls on hard times, Crothers said there's a buzz in his adopted city.

"Winnipeg is a hockey hotbed," he said, adding the city has also embraced the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose. "They're putting up numbers that are probably higher than what's happening in Atlanta."

While Riddall understands Winnipeg's arena can only hold 15,000 people — as opposed to other NHL rinks which have capacities closer to 20,000 — it's still better than half-empty rinks in cities struggling to draw fans.

One thing Winnipeg obviously has in its favour is a built-in hockey culture.

"There are true hockey fans (in Winnipeg)," Riddall said. "You're not trying to inject NHL hockey into places like Atlanta, Columbus and Nashville where, obviously, there just isn't the same fan base."

While there may be some poetic justice to repatriating the Jets from Phoenix, Crothers says Winnipeg fans covet top-level hockey.

"They just want an NHL team, but I think they'd like to have the Coyotes move back and be named the Jets," said Crothers, who has lived in the Manitoba capital for six years. "I think they'd be ticked off if it wasn't named the Jets. The merchandise is still sold here. It's under many kids' Christmas trees — a Jets hat, jersey, whatever."

On that point, Riddall agrees.

"I'm not sure there's still that connection (to the franchise). A team's a team. It would be a dream come true," said Riddall, adding there's also a sense of justice. "It just seems right. There should be a team somewhere between Ontario and Alberta. I'd love to see a team back in Quebec, too."

However, Riddall says he still has concerns about the corporate support a resurrected Winnipeg team would receive.

"You want to make sure you put them into a viable place, but viability comes back to who (owner) is paying for it," he said.

The appetite for NHL hockey in Winnipeg is evident, said Riddall, adding he doesn't see any issues with fans flocking to the MTS Centre.

"There was always a great fan base. I still have friends back in Winnipeg who do day trips (to see Minnesota Wild games)."


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