Who needs the NHL?

TOM BRODBECK -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

They said if the Winnipeg Jets ever left Manitoba, this city would become a ghost town.

It was the kind of doomsday scenario that gave justification to the former Filmon government to funnel millions of tax dollars into the black hole of rapidly increasing players' salaries.

It triggered two major and failed campaigns from the business community to build a new arena for the Jets and create an ownership group to bankroll anticipated losses.

Save the Jets. Save them at any cost. Because the alternative -- losing an NHL franchise the city fought so hard to get -- was inconceivable.

Debates raged for years at the Manitoba Legislature as the bid to save the team -- including a multi-million dollar operating loss agreement signed by government without public input -- became the hottest political potato of the 1990s.

WE ALL WEPT

Our economy would be doomed if the club left, some said. The city would be relegated to a have-not status never before seen in its history.

And when former Winnipeg mayor Susan Thompson, flanked by then premier Gary Filmon and Jets co-owner Barry Shenkarow, announced the team -- despite the community's best efforts -- was lost, the mayor wept. We all wept.

It was a disaster.

But was it really?

Perhaps for an NHL fan. But even then, with ticket prices where they are today, most working-class Winnipeggers wouldn't even be able to afford a Jets game.

The days of discount 7-Eleven Jets tickets are long gone.

And no, the sky didn't fall on our heads.

There never was a real economic argument for keeping the Jets in Winnipeg. From a purely economic point of view, having an NHL team in your city does little -- if anything -- to stimulate economic growth.

It has some short-range spinoffs, primarily in the hospitality industry.

But the entertainment dollars spent by consumers of NHL products is discretionary spending, most of which is spent in other areas of the local economy.

Instead of going to a Jets game today, you go to a movie, the race track, a concert, a Manitoba Moose game, etc. In fact, the Polo Park Mall retail area -- home of the former Winnipeg Jets -- is healthier today than it's ever been.

Most of the money spent on the Jets came from within the local economy. And when they left, most of it stayed in the local economy. We just spend it on different consumer goods and services.

The truth is, if you include the millions we spent as taxpayers subsidizing this team over the years, we're probably better off -- economically -- without them.

But that's just on paper. It doesn't account for the intangibles.

Having an NHL team in your city is a substantial amenity. It helps, to a small degree, to attract and retain people here. It helps put the city on the map.

But the extent to which it contributes to those intangibles was grossly exaggerated during the hype and euphoria of the Save the Jets campaign.

Our economy is really no better or worse off after the team left.

NOT MUCH HAS CHANGED

There was no tangible economic hole that needed to be filled after the team played its final game 10 years ago. Whatever economic weaknesses and strengths we had then we still have today. Not much has changed.

There's a psychological wound for some. But let's face it, that wound is healing over time.

One of the reasons is that hockey is still very much alive in Winnipeg. And if nothing else, losing the Jets was a reminder that we don't need the NHL to preserve hockey in this city. Hockey was thriving in Winnipeg long before the Jets ever came around. And that passion continues today, whether it's in minor hockey, U of M Bisons hockey, a thrilling Charleswood Hawks-St. Vital Victorias MMJHL final or a Manitoba Moose playoff season.

The whole notion in the early 1990s that Winnipeg could not survive without an NHL team was bogus. And predictions of our demise were vastly overstated.

We're OK after all.


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