If the NHL Believed in Winnipeg, They'd Already Have a Team

Steve ThompsonAnalyst IIIMarch 18, 2010

22 Oct 1995:  Left wing Keith Tkachuk of the Winnipeg Jets skates down the ice during a game against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks at Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California.  The Ducks won the game 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Cratty  /Allsport
Glenn Cratty/Getty Images

Since the end of the Jim Balsillie-Hamilton episode, the story of Canada's quest to get another NHL team/NHL franchise relocation has entered a new phase.

Far from being anti-Canadian/anti-small market, Commissioner Gary Bettman has been urging those NHL cities who were "wronged" in the 1990s when they lost their teams to build new arenas and find investors so that they can be readmitted to the league.

A report last year stating that nearly one-third of the NHL's revenues was coming from the great white north has changed the NHL's attitude to Canadian and northern United States expansion.

Accordingly, last year Bettman met with the mayors of "lost franchises"—Hartford and Quebec—about bringing back the Whalers and Nordiques.

In both cities there has been some public ground swell in favor of reclaiming their teams.

In Hartford, the mayor told Bettman he wanted to get the Whalers back within five years and was willing to consider building an NHL-size arena as part of a downtown revitalization project.

But shortly after he was arrested on bribery charges.  Talk died away.

In Quebec, things have gone considerably further.  The mayor recognized that Quebec's lack of a proper arena cost the city its team and has pledged $50 million to build a modern NHL one, said to cost $400 million.

Then a first class investor, Quebecor, which unsuccessfully tried to buy the Montreal Canadians, announced it would be fronting a bid for a returned franchise.

That's left the problem of where to get the remaining $350 million.  Currently, a feasibility study is being conducted to attract more investors and government funding.

Bettman has unofficially listed four conditions to be met as a price for readmission:

1. Adequate fan support

2. A proper NHL-size arena (Current NHL median is 18,000+)

3. Credible investor(s)

4. No territorial conflicts

Because of the last condition, poor Hamilton isn't being considered.

Because of the first condition, neither is Kansas City.

Hartford has problems with conditions two and three.

Quebec is trying to surmount condition two.

But what of that other city that lost its team, Winnipeg.  How do they stand?

They've got the fan support and no territorial conflicts.

But no investor has stepped forward like Quebecor, though a member of the credible Thomson family is said to be associated with a possible NHL bid.

There remains the arena.  Instead of building one to suit the NHL, Winnipeg built a 15,000 seat arena for its own needs to house the AHL Manitoba Moose.

The management has publicly stated that the arena is for the AHL only.

That hasn't stopped the pressure group, the Manitoba Mythbusters, and other local writers from proclaiming that the new arena will be adequate for a returned Winnipeg Jets.

But neither the NHL nor investors are buying it.

No investor has stepped forward to front a bid and state that the new arena is good enough.

Gary Bettman has not given the new arena his blessing.

It is clear that several unnamed NHL franchises are in trouble, and Bettman and the Board of Governors are changing their tune about Canadian expansion and a return to Hartford.

They are even willing to consider the questionable Ice Edge bid for the Phoenix Coyotes, which would see the team play five games a year in remote Saskatoon.

Winnipeg was asked and then turned down the invitation to be the Canadian city in the bid.

Hence, Bettman has made a grand tour with an olive branch, stating that the wronged cities will be welcomed back if they comply with the four conditions.

But Winnipeg has painted itself into a corner by building a too-small arena to meet the NHL's standard.

It's a reasonable request by the NHL.  They want a franchise with adequate finances that can build a competitive team with long-term membership.

All three cities lost their teams when too-small arenas, coupled with bad economic times, made tenure unfeasible.

If anything, the smaller cities need larger arenas to generate more ticket revenue to make up for small-market size.

Winnipeg is now caught between a rock and a hard place.

The die-hards like the Mythbusters are trying to convince investors and the NHL to overlook the arena size and base their arguments on the fact that they are better than the money-losing American teams.

That is certainly true, but that doesn't make Winnipeg in a too-small arena feasible either.

The other alternative is to make the bitter, politically-embarrassing admission that taxpayer dollars were wasted on the new arena and then come up with money to build a second NHL size one.  No one wants to do that either.

So Winnipeg is stuck in limbo.  The NHL wants to return there, but not unless they meet all four of their conditions.

Winnipeg has never had a better chance to get back into the NHL than now, but that could change quickly.

Tampa Bay is already stabilized with new ownership.

If Ice Edge can successfully negotiate with Glendale and the NHL accepts them, the Coyotes are off the market.

There is a new arena being built in Brooklyn that may house the Islanders.

If Quebec can find more investors and construction of the new arena is started, one more team will be moved.  What if Hartford follows suit?

What if the NHL comes to its senses and finally gives Hamilton a real chance?

And there are at least half a dozen other American cities—Seattle, Houston, Portland, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, and Oklahoma City—who could come to the NHL's rescue and take a troubled franchise off its hands.

Then Winnipeg could be left waiting decades instead of years for an NHL franchise all because of the arena issue.

If investors and the NHL believed in the current arena, Winnipeg would already have a team.


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