By Dan Falloon, sports reporter
So there’s been a little bit of talk about an NHL team returning to Winnipeg.
I’d imagine that, at the very least, a handful of folks here in Fort Frances would welcome such a move. I can see a local family heading to Winnipeg for an overnighter, or for a weekend, to see a Jets/Coyotes/Thrashers/Predators game a couple of times a season—at least more frequently than that same family would do to see the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
Even if professional hockey was a rare treat, going to Winnipeg for an NHL game would be a little less travel time than going to see the Minnesota Wild down in the Twin Cities.
But with the rumours swirling about the return of the zombie Jets, I can’t help but wonder if the hockey team of the undead would be an appropriate fit in Winnipeg.
Yes, a team in Winnipeg probably would record a higher average attendance than some of the franchises in the southern U.S. sunbelt, and it would be heartwarming to see another team in a city where the locals know a hockey puck from a hole in the ground.
I agree Winnipeg would be the smallest market in the NHL, but would have a larger hockey market than some of the southern teams.
Still, I just can’t see NHL commissioner Gary Bettman admitting those franchises in Miami, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Atlanta, and perhaps Nashville (I pull for the hard-working, lunch-bucket Predators and coach Barry Trotz) were a little half-baked—even if the key phrase was “potential.”
Given that many of those teams (as well as the Anaheim Ducks) came into being while southern California still was riding the Wayne Gretzky wave, the reasoning seemed to be that “Hey, hockey worked in SoCal. Why can’t it work in other hot places?”
Well, as flashy and entertaining as Pavel Bure (Florida), Vincent Lecavalier (Tampa Bay), and Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta) are/were, none of them ever were quite fit enough to earn the moniker “The Great One.”
If every one of those teams was able to employ the greatest player of all-time, then surely they all would have been smashing successes.
Yes, the NHL’s southern expansion was ill-advised, but the answer isn’t just to foist a franchise upon another market.
Honestly, Winnipeg is probably in the top 30 cities in North America for an NHL team. There just shouldn’t be 30 teams in the NHL in the current system, and a Winnipeg team just seems too risky in the current NHL.
Proponents of an NHL franchise in Winnipeg maintain there is corporate support the Moose enjoy that would increase if an NHL team came to town, as well as many more who would come out of the woodwork for that level of hockey.
Hard to confirm, but that would be vital.
They point to a lack of serious competition for the sports entertainment dollar, as tickets to see the Northern League’s Winnipeg Goldeyes are inexpensive while the Blue Bombers only play 10 home dates a season.
There’s also the importance of squeezing every last penny from the MTS Centre, which the Jets weren’t able to do in the old Winnipeg Arena.
Jetsowner.com, a website devoted to bringing an NHL team back to Winnipeg, has a seating chart with single-game tickets starting at $45 per game, or about double what the Moose charge.
That rate certainly is comparable to the starting price for the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, and Ottawa Senators.
The market is there, as the Moose tend to draw respectable regular-season crowds and were selling out the MTS Centre’s 15,000+ seats during their run to the Calder Cup final last year.
It’s hard to say a team absolutely, positively would fail, and that the city’s past history would absolutely, positively preempt the league from considering the Winnipeg market (Atlanta, the Bay Area, and the Twin Cities all saw teams return while talk of the NHL coming back to Kansas City just won’t die).
But a team in Winnipeg goes from a “maybe” to an “absolutely” once the NHL cuts its losses and stops trying to keep up with the Joneses.
If the league places franchises in Canada and strong, traditional American markets, capping at 20 or 24 teams, and stops running itself ragged trying to prop up as many American franchises as possible in the name of securing an American TV deal, then the league would be stronger both on the ice and off of it.
However, if the NHL’s stars want to be paid in the same realm as NBA, NFL, or MLB stars, they have to be recognized as such. That won’t happen without some big-time help from an American network (and sponsors that might not want to be associated with a scaled-down circuit).
But American networks won’t be interested in a league where nearly half of a league’s (ideally) franchises are Canadian-based.
Bam, there’s your catch-22.
Never mind that the Thrashers, Panthers, or Coyotes aren’t exactly centrepieces of NBC’s “Game of the Week” (the Panther fans in Miami are ravenous for the Flyers and Red Wings, apparently).
Oh yeah, there’s the whole issue of star players potentially jumping ship to be well-compensated in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. Why go to Siberian-inspired Winnipeg for $2 million when you can go to actual Siberia for $10 million?
Sadly, contracting the league would throw some players out of work—likely those in the lower leagues as the NHL fringe descends to the AHL and the trickle-down effect continues.
And some teams’ staff would be forced to search through the “help wanted” ads, as well, again unfortunate since it seems, at least from afar, that a lot of the lower-level employees are doing the best they can to make the franchise a success.
It’s those running the show in Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and Phoenix, and at the league offices, who have dropped the ball in putting together franchises with a reasonable chance of long-term legitimacy.
By Dan Falloon, sports reporter