The defining moment for Mark Chipman didn’t come when he consummated the deal in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, or when he wrote the biggest cheque he’s ever written.
It didn’t come when he was greeted by a mass of television cameras and journalists as he prepared to make the most significant announcement in this city’s sports history.
It came in the bowels of the MTS Centre, at the loading dock, when he welcomed NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Gary Meagher, the league’s senior P.R. man, to his downtown arena for the first time.
“My knees just buckled,” Chipman said, after the cameras were shut down and most of the reporters were gone, Tuesday afternoon. “That was sort of a real moment. We’re walking to meet Mr. Bettman on the loading dock and the guy (Meagher) introduced himself as being from the National Hockey League.
“I’m pretty jacked about that.”
It was quite a day in the ’Peg, as the NHL blew back into town like the near-hurricane north wind that followed it.
The head of True North Sports is easily Manitoba’s most popular millionaire, judging by the impromptu celebrations at Portage and Main and the Forks.
And David Thomson? He’s pretty cool, too. Not every Toronto billionaire gives two hoots about making a difference out here in the colonies.
But Thomson, a former Winnipeg Hudson’s Bay worker who always looks like he’s fresh off a scuffle, waxed poetic about the sense of community here, and about his commitment to Canada.
“He spent time working in Winnipeg when he was younger,” Chipman said of his partner. “He got a sense of the strength of our community through that. What he sees in this is the ability of a Canadian community that’s struggled at times to step forward. That really resonates with him.”
And his bank account resonates with the NHL.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” NHL boss Gary Bettman said of Thomson’s involvement.
Talk about an unlikely partnership, though.
The reclusive art collector with the high-school hair, and the clean-cut, second-generation car dealer, a former jock who’s just as comfortable in the locker-room as he is in the boardroom.
Brought together by chance: Chipman wanted to build an arena, Thomson owned the old Eaton’s Building and the land it stood on.
Over the years, other partners were bought out, leaving Winnipeg its own Dynamic Duo.
“There’s no way I could do it on my own,” Chipman conceded.
Turns out these two share more than deep pockets.
Who knew Thomson was a hockey nut?
“He’s very passionate about hockey,” Chipman said. “And has a great knowledge of the history of the game.”
Neither is passionate about losing money, though.
The man who’ll oversee the franchise doesn’t expect that’ll be a problem, despite residing in the league’s smallest market, in its smallest arena.
“We think it can be a profitable venture,” Chipman said. “It’s not a business you get into necessarily for that purpose, but we’re confident in the economics of the league, that they fit our community and that we can sustain it over the long-term.
“If we can get 15,000 paid attendees in this building regularly, it’ll work. I believe it will be (full) for many years to come.”
Actually, that’ll be largely up to Chipman himself.
As an NHL owner, he says he’ll be more Nashville than Detroit, closer to the floor than the ceiling of the salary cap. At least, for starters.
But when he sees a chance, he’ll go for it.
Kind of like he did with the Thrashers, kicking the franchise’s tires two years ago, poking around its interior for the last few weeks and finally getting behind the wheel, Tuesday.
Now we’re all along for the ride.
Safe to say, we’re pretty jacked about it, too.