NHL Returns to Winnipeg but Success Is Not Guaranteed

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NHL Returns to Winnipeg but Success Is Not Guaranteed
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With their 11:30 a.m. EST press conference yesterday, the True North Sports and Entertainment group, led my Mark Chipman, announced the return of an NHL franchise to the city of Winnipeg.

The jubilation and celebration has been off the charts in the city of Winnipeg since before the announcement, and was whipped up to a fever pitch yesterday following the press conference. But while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was busy making a congratulatory statement and people across Canada were happy about the move, we have to remember that there is one huge loser in all of this: the city of Atlanta.


Hockey in the South

There is no question that hockey just didn't work in Atlanta. Let's face it, hockey is a tough sell in many southern markets at the best of times. In addition, Atlanta is a market that had already failed to retain an NHL franchise when they lost the Flames to Calgary in the 1980-81 season.

The problem for this iteration of the Atlanta franchise was that they were never able to achieve much on-ice success, and that trickled down to attendance and fan support.

In recent years, it wouldn't be surprising to find a mere 4000 or 5000 fans in the stands. But what do you expect from a team that made the playoffs only once since the 1999-2000 season?

Playoff success can help build a ground swell of fan support, turning the arms length observer into an ardent supporter. Unfortunately, Atlanta was a franchise that fell short far too often and, well, no one wants to support a perennial loser.

Mmm, there's a Leafs joke in there somewhere. But I digress...

Despite the 1999 decision to move an NHL franchise back to Atlanta being perhaps a foolhardy one, today is still a sad day for the city.

Sure there wasn't much fan support for the Thrashers, but there was some.

Speaking as someone who knows what it's like for their city to lose a professional sports franchise, for those who cared in Atlanta the news of their departure is surely devastating.

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Onward and upward

So now the city of Winnipeg gets a second kick at the can and, while fans are rightfully focusing on the excitement of the team's return, the reality is that there are several pitfalls this franchise has to avoid.

With a population of just over 750,000 Winnipeg is now the smallest market in the NHL.

However, despite their small numbers the Winnipeg market is filled with passionate, dedicated hockey fans. This is a huge departure from Atlanta where hockey was one of the lowest attractions on most people's lists.

A hockey-passionate fan base is a great start but they have to show their support with their hard-earned dollars and not just with their cheers.

At a 15,000-seat capacity, the MTS Center will, as Gary Bettman put it, have to be full every night for this to work. The numbers just don't add up otherwise.

So the real challenge here is not to sell out the building over the next few seasons, but to keep that attendance brimming for decades to come.


The on-ice product matters

The season ticket drive, which was the focus of True North's press conference, will get underway today at 1:00 p.m. The goal of the drive is to sell 13,000 season tickets packages by or before the 21st of June.

So, in essence, now is the time for the fans to put their money where their mouths are.

To be completely honest I don't see them having any problem meeting their sales target. There is so much excitement and anticipation about the upcoming season that these tickets will be gone in an instant.

And with a three-year renewal commitment that comes along with these season ticket purchases, the MTS Center should be full for the next few seasons without any struggle.

The potential concern is after that point.

If there is one lesson learned from the Thrashers' failure, it is that the on-ice product matters. If the management group of the yet-to-be-named Winnipeg team cannot put together a competitive product on the ice, they could end up having problems at the box office.

Problems at the box office would mean a dip in revenue and, with such little wiggle room, this franchise too could start having financial difficulties.


Management is key

So while Mark Chipman and co. are, by all accounts, an excellent ownership group, this team needs one heck of a General Manager to run the whole thing. Rick Dudley, the incumbent, has a good relationship with many in the True North group so he seems likely to keep his GM job.

That being said, they do have other possible candidates they could look at but my gut tells me they'll stick with Dudley. At least for now.

From a cap perspective, all indications are that the Winnipeg team will not be spending to the salary cap max, but rather somewhere between the floor and the ceiling. If we consider that the cap is due to rise to somewhere in the $60 million range next season, that could put Winnipeg's spending at around $40-50 million.

All of this, of course, is contingent on a full building and tons of merchandising sales.

So whoever ends up running this team will have less dollars to play with than many of their NHL counterparts, but will be required to produce, at a minimum, a perennial playoff team.

That's not impossible but definitely gives the GM a razor thin margin of error.

As such, drafting and scouting is going to become that much more important for this franchise. If they don't have the dollars to spend on their roster this team must do better than the other 29 in drafting and player development.

Selecting, cultivating and building success off the backs of young, inexpensive talent is going to be the key to Winnipeg's success. And, for anyone who looks at the draft record for most teams in this league, it's often a hit or miss prospect.

So nothing is guaranteed there.


Travel Schedule

The other huge issue, at least for next season, is that Winnipeg will take Atlanta's spot in the Southeast division. With division opponents like the Caps, Lightning, Canes and Panthers, this means the Winnipeg team will be traveling 10,000 more kilometers than any other team.

Yowza!

The league is going to play out next season like that and will look at realigning the divisions for the following year. A probable realignment would have the Winnipeg team in a division with Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Minnesota. At the same time, there is a very real possibility that the Detroit Red Wings' wish of finally being placed back in the Eastern conference will come true.

Food for thought and perhaps a minor complication, but the extra travel miles will undoubtedly affect the players next season.


What of Quebec City?

Despite the potential problems the new Winnipeg franchise faces, this is a good day for hockey. The league has moved a team from a struggling, non-traditional market to one that embraces the sport and has a deep history with the league.

So does this open the door for other struggling franchises to perhaps relocate to Canada in the future?

Possibly.

But right now, there is no other city that has what is needed to get a deal done: an ownership group with deep pockets and a new NHL-ready arena.

So while many are hoping that the Phoenix Coyotes will be the next to move, perhaps to Quebec City, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before that can happen.

For all the passion in Quebec City they don't have an NHL-ready arena nor a government who wants to put money behind one. Until they do, a new NHL team will remain just out of reach.

But today is not a day to talk about Quebec, but rather to embrace the strengthening of the league. It's the survival of the fittest and, by cutting off a cancerous appendage, the NHL became a stronger league yesterday.

---
Kamal is a freelance Habs writer, Senior Writer/Editor-in-Chief of HabsAddict.com, Montreal Canadiens Blogger on Hockeybuzz.com and Habs writer on TheFranchise.ca. Kamal is also a weekly contributor to the Sunday Shinny on The Team 990 (AM 990) every Sunday from 8 to 9 a.m. Listen live at http://www.team990.com/

Follow Kamal on Facebook,    Twitter, HabsAddict.com and Hockeybuzz.com

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