On the Eve of Winnipeg's Return to the NHL, Thoughts from a Minnesota Wild Fan

Joe M.Correspondent IIMay 23, 2011

Thrashers star Dustin Byfuglien (BUFF-LYN) is basically going to home to Winnipeg (he's from 98 miles away, Roseau, Minnesota)
Thrashers star Dustin Byfuglien (BUFF-LYN) is basically going to home to Winnipeg (he's from 98 miles away, Roseau, Minnesota)Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Update: I am now hearing Wednesday and NOT Tuesday, per Jetsowner.com forums, as orginally thought, as possibly "the Day".

You know the expression that when you anticipate something for so long and it finally happens, you don’t know what to do or say? After all the waiting, hoping, emotional highs and lows, the wait finally ends and you can’t believe it. You don’t know how to react because in the back of your mind you never really expected it to come to fruition.

That’s exactly how I felt Thursday night when news broke late from the Toronto Sun that Winnipeg would indeed be getting a team for next season, only it would be the relocated Atlanta Thrashers and not the Phoenix Coyotes for whom my personal vote was cast.

I guess I spent so many hours analyzing exactly how the transition from Phoenix to Winnipeg would go that despite internet rumors at Jetsowner.com forums among other places, I simply didn’t believe it would come together so quickly. I knew of the possible Atlanta move for a few months, but again, without Phoenix resolved, I saw them as the front runner despite strong suggestions to the opposite.

I just didn’t see the NHL allowing Atlanta to simply walk away after a very public and ugly fight over keeping the lost-cause Coyotes in Arizona for at least another year. In temporarily closing the book on that mess, they are saved for another year. I personally don’t care if they stay there until 2015 when Quebec City’s new $400 million Videotron Arena is supposed to open.

Basically rather that be sold to some American group in Kansas City, Milwaukee, Seattle or Portland like some of the wishes and hopes of some NHL fans, I’d rather these markets get shut out at least until all is right in Canada. That means getting the Quebec Nordiques back and maybe a team in Hamilton, Ontario at long last. After the Hartford Whalers are back, then pursue other markets.

By then, this should just about solve the Florida Panthers, Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets' relocation problems before we have to deal with the historic and traditional New York Islanders, whom I’d like to see stay because of these facts.


Canadian Order of Preference


2. Quebec Nordiques

3. Edmonton Oilers

4. Calgary Flames

5. Toronto Maple Leafs

6. Montreal Canadiens

7. Vancouver Canucks

8. Ottawa Senators

The above is my personal preference list of the proposed Canadian franchises from favorite to least favorite. Note that market size dictates my preference, as I am a small market advocate. This is what makes tomorrow’s announcement at Portage and Main so exciting, as you don’t often see it in sports: the forfeit of a large market in Atlanta in favor of a small market in Winnipeg.

That, and there will be those that say, “this is the first time since 1992 that a team has actually been added to Canada,” which is true in reference to the Ottawa Senators expansion team.

But more importantly, it's the first time a team will be relocated to Canada since the 1980 Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary and kept the same name.

Finally, the impact of the NHL on Atlanta and the state of Georgia cannot be lost. With two failed attempts, even the lamest fan knows the NHL will never be back in either venue, and for Atlanta, that has to hurt as a cold dose of reality. Conceivably, if Phoenix were to move to Canada and they built a new arena in actual Phoenix, one might argue it could work. But it's now been proven twice that Atlanta is a flop and no future commissioner will ever (in his right mind) approve expansion or relocation to that dead zone again. For traditional fans of the NHL, that is a good thing.


Will the Stars Actually Stay in Winnipeg?

This has been an argument from both NHL players and fans on both sides of the debate with those in opposition, of course, pointing to the negative. They talk of the old NHL without a salary cap and a weak Canadian dollar which made it impossible to survive under the old system.

They talk of Winnipeg Arena with its obstructed views and lack of parking and other revenue that is a non-issue since True North Sports and Entertainment own the building and won’t have to pay rent. Finally, they don’t seem to realize that David Thomsen, at a net worth of $19 billion, will be the richest owner in the NHL after the deal is approved, and he is also the 17th richest man in the world.

If players actually leave Winnipeg, it won’t be because the team couldn’t afford them, rather it will be a personal decision that they wanted to leave. As in any sport, you can’t do anything about that (Chris Pronger Edmonton to Anaheim). I think the 1980’s Edmonton Oilers proved that you can create a dynasty in a small market and it can work, at least for awhile, so never say never.

I am also very glad they are supposedly getting a new arena which will keep them in Alberta for the next 35 years so we don’t face another Nordique or Jets scenario, or even more Edmonton to Houston rumors of the late 1990s.

Dustin Byfuglien, a Roseau, Minnesota native, aka the popular “Big Buff” will soon be able to sleep in his own bed, have the team over for a pre-game meal or just to hang out on the weekends if he wants to go ice fishing.

The high school powerhouses of Roseau and Warroad, which line the extreme Northern Minnesota-Canadian border, will now have an NHL alternative just across the border (about 100 miles) to watch.

The people of Baudette, Minnesota or International Falls will now have a similar alternative and when asked about “living in the middle of nowhere” along with the rest of desolate Northern Minnesota,  they can say “I don’t know what you are talking about, we are less than two hours away from a major NHL market.”

That is roughly the same distance as San Diego to Los Angeles, Milwaukee to Chicago or Tampa to Orlando. As a fan of the Minnesota Wild first and foremost, I feel bad that these loyal Wild fans will now have a decision to make in terms of who to support and given the distance, I think it's likely they convert. No matter who they root for, I think a friendly border rivalry may be created.


Wild Want to Go to the Central

Despite never having a real rivalry with the Minnesota North Stars, the Minnesota Wild aren’t expected to have one directly with the new Winnipeg franchise, either. Still, through creative marketing and learning from the past, I am sure something can be done.

But keep in mind the Wild has bigger plans, as they would like to move to the Central, aka the old Norris division, to be with natural rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and St Louis Blues, all of whom truly battled the old North Stars.

Wild proponents say it would cut down on travel costs. The Wild wouldn't have to cross an international border and games would start and end sooner than the often nine-o-clock start times should a game be in Calgary or Vancouver. But I say be careful what you wish for.

Long term is a great idea, but right now the Wild are already better than divisional rivals Colorado and Edmonton, and until the last two weeks of the season, were better than Calgary. The only team they may be better than them is Columbus and they very well could go to the Southeast. Although there are rumors that perennial playoff contender Nashville could be the one to go, I’d prefer to see the mighty Red Wings finally get their wish to move East from a competitive standpoint as it would open up another slot for the Wild to hope for.

Supporters will say a move is necessary because there is no history or rivalry outside of Vancouver that the will be with these Central teams. The day Winnipeg comes back (something I never thought I’d see), they will instantly become my second favorite team right behind the Wild. I’d love nothing more than the Western Conference Finals to go through Manitoba or Minnesota each spring. If we have to lose to someone, let it be Winnipeg!

And if you think this is fun, just wait until the Nationaliste Nordiques get back into the NHL with their French twist and flavour added to the mix. Is this truly the tip of the iceberg? The first domino?

Let’s hope so.

Information and references courtesy ESPN.com, KARE 11 News (Minneapolis), the Star Tribune and Minnesota Wild beat writer Michael Russo's column, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Tom Powers' column.