It could so easily have been the Phoenix Coyotes. Probably should have been, even.
A behind-the-scenes look at the deal that brought the NHL back to Winnipeg reveals just how close True North Sports and Entertainment came to landing the old Jets franchise, instead of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Destiny may have had the Thrashers in mind, but you wouldn’t have known it as far back as the spring of 2009.
It was just before the Coyotes were plunged into bankruptcy, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman approached True North boss Mark Chipman about taking over the Coyotes in time for the 2009-10 season.
“It was too late in the year to consider it for the fall of 2009,” Chipman told QMI Agency, Wednesday, recalling his Manitoba Moose were in the playoffs at the time. “Pulling together in that time frame was not realistic.”
That fall, the NHL purchased the Coyotes out of bankruptcy court. Sometime after Thanksgiving, Chipman made a second presentation to the league’s executive board. The first had come in 2007.
“Now they owned the team and were looking for a solution in Glendale, and would we consider it?” Chipman recalled the league asking. “The answer was yes.”
In late May, 2010, Chipman quietly flew to New York, where he spent an entire week hammering out a deal with the league.
After years of studying the NHL’s new economics and how they’d apply to Winnipeg, he was closer than ever to joining the most exclusive hockey club in the world.
“We had basically come to an agreement in principle,” he said. “But still knowing we were the backup plan.”
The backup plan to a made-in-Glendale solution, which depended on politicians agreeing to eat $25 million in losses for the following season — an eerily similar arrangement to the ill-fated save-the-Jets effort Chipman had been involved with 15 years earlier.
“If they had been unsuccessful, we would have ended up with that team last year,” he said.
But Glendale’s decision to bail out the team for a year wasn’t heartbreaking for the True North troubadour.
“We just kind of had a feeling that if we were unsuccessful there, we were going to get a shot at another one,” Chipman said. “And we weren’t going to have to wait. So we were fine with that.”
Glendale had until New Year’s Eve, 2010, to solidify a deal with a new owner who’d stay in the Phoenix suburb.
But the talks dragged into January, then February, March and April. Still no deal.
So Chipman, biding his time through that stretch, sprung back into action.
“We restarted the engines sometime this spring on the work we had done the year prior,” he said. “On the notion that there was a good possibility we would buy that team.”
Chipman says he wasn’t concerned about any baggage the olds Jets franchise would bring.
“We were looking for membership in the NHL.”
Then it was deja vu, all over again. Glendale politicians, to the surprise even of some at the NHL, dug deeper.
“Same thing happened,” Chipman said. “We went to the 11th hour again. And Glendale acquired another year, and then we immediately skipped tracks and were presented with the Atlanta opportunity.”
Talks with the Atlanta owners, with politics now out of the picture, made rapid progress.
The calendar was the only threat to the deal.
“It got a little dicey right at the end,” Chipman said. “We were running out of time.”
Had the deal not been done Tuesday, the Thrashers would likely have been forced to limp through another season in Atlanta.
But an all-night negotiating session, by phone, had Chipman confident enough, by 6:30 a.m., to send out notice of a news conference for later Tuesday morning.
At 9 a.m., he received the final phone call from Atlanta Spirit owner Bruce Levenson, congratulating him on his purchase.
“There was a lot of relief when we heard those words,” Chipman said.
The Jets may not have come home that day.
But destiny paid a highly-anticipated visit.