So Eric Belanger doesnít think much of Winnipeg as a candidate to get an NHL team should the Phoenix Coyotes or Atlanta Thrashers be forced to move.
The Coyotes forward from Sherbrooke, Que., recently told QMI Agency he believes Quebec City to be a far better option than Winnipeg in the eyes of NHL players. In fact, he went so far as to say players he has talked with donít want to go to Winnipeg. Period.
He partly based his theory on the uninformed opinion that Winnipeg is still the same as it was when the Winnipeg Jets flew south to Phoenix in 1996.
ďThere are reasons why hockey wasnít working in Winnipeg at the end ... I donít see how that would have changed,Ē Belanger said.
Well, Mr. Belanger, a lot has changed since those days and Winnipeg is more ready for an NHL franchise than any other North American city, including Quebec, at this point.
Winnipeg has all the ingredients in place for the return of an NHL team and has had for quite some time.
It has addressed the biggest issues that forced the team to leave.
Thereís a relatively new downtown arena, built to generate revenue, and there are deep-pocketed owners who want to own a team in Winnipeg.
In 1995-96, the Jets played in an old, city-owned money-losing Winnipeg Arena, which generated virtually no revenue for the team. There was no one who wanted to own the team, with costs out of control in the NHL, the Canadian dollar worth about 60% of the American greenback and the team playing in a money pit.
Today, the NHL has its financial house in order with a salary cap, the Canadian dollar is above par, the MTS Centre is one of the most successful buildings of its size in North America and Mark Chipman and David Thomson have both the wherewithal and the hockey experience necessary to purchase and run a model franchise.
If Chipmanís True North Sports and Entertainment were to purchase the Thrashers or Coyotes, it would be an easy transition with an experienced staff already in place running the highly successful Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Thatís how things have changed over the last 16 years, Mr. Belanger.
One thing that hasnít changed is the passion of the Winnipeg fans, who, like the fans in Quebec City, are clamouring for the return of a team. The groundswell of support has been building for years and everyone from average Joes (buying tickets) to corporate leaders (suites) are prepared to get involved.
As for Belangerís suggestion that ďWinnipeg is still Winnipeg,Ē thatís not something we would consider an insult.
Especially if you consider the words of a player who played for the Jets, along with the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings.
ďThat was probably, of my 15 years, four years that I enjoyed the most,Ē former Jets winger Kris King told the Sun a few months back. ďThatís what I remember about Winnipeg, was the people and how much they cared. How much they cheered for a team that wasnít overly talented, but worked hard. That, to me, is what Winnipeg is still all about.Ē
Yeah, Mr. Belanger, maybe Winnipeg is still Winnipeg.
But itís even better.
As you will read in the following two pages of our special feature called One Great City, there are plenty of NHL players who would be happy to come to Winnipeg as long as the franchise is well run and the team is competitive.
There will always be some, like Belanger, who canít see past the warts, but the bottom line is this is a hockey city and the majority of players will come to love it.