Hockey fans gathered at the famous corner of Portage and Main to celebrate the return of the NHL to Winnipeg on Tuesday. — Photo by Postmedia News Service
Back in the spring of 1983, Serge Savard, a handicapper well versed in the language of favourites and long shots, was comparing an upcoming Winnipeg Jets’ playoff series against Wayne Gretzky and company’s laser-light show to one of his vast stable of ponies down at the racetrack.
Aged 37, the Hall of Fame curator of the Savardian Spin-O-Rama had been coaxed out of retirement the year previous by old pal John Ferguson to stabilize a still-teething Jets’ defence corps.
The horse in question, Centre Square, went off in a big stakes race at 22-1. The tote board flashed that the prohibitive favourite French Chef was heading to the post at 1-9. French Chef had never been beaten.
“I remember some guy bet $100,000 on French Chef to show,” Savard recalled with relish that long-ago day. “Well, it finished fourth. And my horse won.
“Just goes to show, when the odds are against you, anything can happen. You can beat the odds. Any odds.”
Not even a tout as astute as Savard, though, would have had the nerve to plunk down substantial coin on the nose on NHL hockey returning to Winnipeg.
Yet that’s what happened on Tuesday. Winnipeg is back in the big time. Back in the National Hockey League, pending the approval of the NHL’s board of governors (Read: Manitobans snap up 13,000 seasons tickets in the next three weeks).
Spearheaded by local businessman Mark Chipman, the prime force behind the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose, and billionaire David Thomson, the True North Sports and Entertainment group hammered out the final details to bring the Atlanta Thrashers north for $170 million US in the wee small hours of Tuesday morning.
The deal could have implications for St. John’s.
True North will continue to own an AHL affiliate and is attempting to relocate it in time for the 2011-12 season with St. John’s, being the most-mentioned destination.
“I expect we’ll partner with somebody in another community that will actually run the business of it where we will be responsible for the player and hockey operations component of it,” Chipman told Postmedia News.
St. John’s is absolutely an option, that’s a fantastic hockey market. We played there for many years, they’ve got a great building and they’d love to get the American Hockey League back.”
There was a strangely anti-climatic feel to Tuesday’s announcement, to be truthful. Winnipeg has had its hopes built up and torn down so often it seemed almost confused as what to feel with a 15-year chase finally over.
Not that membership in such an exclusive club comes without cost.
The message from the guys in suits Tuesday was polite, but firm — you’ve wanted this back since 1996, people, so pony up. Open those pocketbooks.
For a decade and a half Winnipeg found itself on the outside looking in. Now it finds itself on the clock. As a pledge of good faith, 13,000 season tickets need purchasing by June 21. Packages at the 15,000-seat MTS Centre range from $139 per game or $5,805 for a 41-game schedule to $39 a night or $1,755 a season. And there’s a commitment between three to five years on those plans.
“It doesn’t work if this building isn’t full,” cautioned NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, with his most enigmatic smile, at Tuesday’s media conference announcing the sale. “It’s difficult to contemplate, with all the extraordinary effort that Dave and Mark have gone to, the investment that they’re making and the outcry from this community since 1996 . . . I’m not going to contemplate, even for a second, the possibility they won’t reach 13,000.”
Bettman may have been the bearer of good news when the sale was announced at the MTS Centre. But down at the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers join and Winnipeg’s prime meeting place, many Winnipeg hockey fans, young and old, showed up with grinning Gary T-shirts that read “Bettman Sucks.”
The commish, long viewed as the villainous prime mover behind hockey’s continuing migration to the U.S., was booed when shown on the large-screen televising the announcement.
“We don’t like moving franchises,” said Bettman flatly. “We know how important a franchise is to a community. The emotional and financial investment people make in NHL hockey.
“We were extraordinarily unhappy when we left here in 1996. We had no choice. With the celebration here, there’s obviously regret with what’s happening in Atlanta. But to be able to come back to a place that loves NHL hockey, to be able to do it in a city that’s changed, in a collective bargaining agreement that’s levelled the playing surface, with this building, this ownership . . . these were factors that didn’t exist in ’96.
“So to be able to, if you will, right a wrong, that’s an extraordinary thing.
“The opportunity to bring a franchise back to Canada, which we know is the heart and soul of our game is important to us, when circumstances presented themselves.”
As lovely, and as many Canadian flags as were, he didn’t exactly swing the door wide open for those in Quebec City who view this as the start of a series of dominoes.
“I get extremely unhappy and cranky with raising expectations when they shouldn’t be raised,” Bettman replied tersely. “We’ve gone 14 years without moving a franchise. We will continue to resist that. It’s not about which is better. It’s about where we are and trying to preserve a community’s interest, identity and love affair with its franchise.
“Other communities shouldn’t be reading anything into what’s happening here.”