Winnipeg Penguins?

KEN WIEBE -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

Mark Chipman is planning to call Mario Lemieux in the near future, but isn't sure how long the conversation will last.

"What I'd like to emphasize is if it means the team has to stay in Pittsburgh, it'll be a pretty quick conversation," said Chipman, the chairman of True North Sports & Entertainment and governor of the Manitoba Moose to a gathering of media yesterday.

Reports out of Pittsburgh suggest Lemieux's goal is for the franchise to remain in Pittsburgh, but that option is only viable if a new arena is built.

One current plan is predicated on gambling firm Isle of Capri Casinos Inc. winning a bid for a slot machine licence, which would allow them to build a $290 million rink as part of the project.

EXPRESSED INTEREST

So while Pittsburgh appears to be a long shot under what appear to be the current terms, Chipman admits the pursuit of an NHL team for Winnipeg is alive. To that end, Chipman has expressed his interest to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and understands expansion won't be on the radar screen anytime soon.

"I've known Bill for several years and he's aware of our interest and aware of the building and its attributes," said Chipman, referring to the 15,015-seat MTS Centre.

Relocation remains the most likely option and could include a current NHL ownership group partnering up with True North Sports & Entertainment -- or the creation of a community-based model similar to the one the Edmonton Oilers currently employ.

"It really depends on what an owner of a team wanted to accomplish," said Chipman. "There's a range of ways it could possibly occur."

Although the salary cap ceiling is expected to rise as high as $42 million US next season, Chipman doesn't see that as a detriment.

"No, I don't think so. People should understand now that if this were ever possible, it wouldn't be possible at the upper end of that salary range," said Chipman. "You're going to have a team that, at best, is at the mid-range or lower."

So has True North determined whether running an NHL franchise is feasible in this market?

"We're not absolutely certain," said Chipman. "What's starting to reveal itself now is that the economics of this new world order, so to speak, aren't that different. Players salaries have gone down very nominally and it's still a very expensive league to operate in. What they've done is level the playing field. But there are still lots of teams at or very close to the payrolls they were working with before the lockout.

"Is it conceivable? Do the economics work? We haven't come to a definitive determination that that's the case, but we think it's possible."

Chipman was also quick to dismiss a rumour that suggested he was trying to purchase the Winnipeg Jets name.

"I don't know where that one came from. I really don't," said Chipman. "I can tell that's not something we've been working on."

Former NHLer Randy Gilhen, who has ties to both Winnipeg and Pittsburgh, believes Lemieux's threat is just the latest salvo in the team's attempt to get a new building.

"It's a stare down between Mario and the City of Pittsburgh. The football and baseball teams have new buildings and the Penguins need one. He's calling the city's bluff," said Gilhen, who won a Stanley Cup ring with the Penguins in 1991.

CONTENDERS

Cities believed to be in the mix to acquire an NHL franchise:

- HOUSTON: Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander is looking for a higher-profile secondary tenant for the Toyota Center and just so happens to have deep pockets. American Hockey League's Aeros average just under 5,000 fans per game.

- KANSAS CITY: The city that once featured the Scouts in the NHL has plans to build a new $250 million US arena by 2007 and a conglomerate, NHL21, that is hoping to attract a team to be the primary tenant.

- WINNIPEG: Already has the 15,015-seat MTS Centre and an established hockey market with passionate fans. Manitoba Moose are third in AHL attendance, averaging more than 7,500 fans per game.


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