Atlanta Thrashers or Phoenix Coyotes? Which team is most likely to relocate to Winnipeg?
This conversation turns up in the most surprising locations. While sitting in a barber’s chair last week, someone mentioned that he thought the Thrashers would soon announce the team was on its way to Winnipeg. A man in the chair adjacent to mine, who had just returned from Québec City, got into the debate by saying that it was likely one of the two teams would be going to that city, as a $400-million arena would soon be built.
“What about Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying the feds weren’t going to help fund the arena?” I asked.
This was days before the federal election in which the NDP swept Québec. If I had the insight to know that the “orange surge” would keep all the other parties’ presence, including the Conservatives, to a bare minimum, I would have mentioned that it was even more unlikely that the Harper government would reward the voters of Québec with tens of millions of dollars to build a new arena.
The man, originally from Québec, was dumfounded by my skepticism.
“It’s going to happen,” he asserted.
But the conversation again turned to which team would relocate to Winnipeg.
Always the skeptic, I pronounced that I’d believe it when a team was physically relocated to Winnipeg.
“No, it’s a done deal,” claimed another man awaiting his turn in the barber’s chair. “And, it’s going to be Atlanta.”
“Why do you think so?” I asked.
“Mayor Katz said it was Atlanta,” came the firm reply.
Of course, Katz did mention that it was more likely that the Thrashers would be playing in the MTS Centre next hockey season, but similar to everyone else, the mayor was engaging in a little speculation based upon the best available — but decidedly scanty — evidence.
Like the Coyotes, the Thrashers organization is in the throes of a financial crisis, and the team has been shopped around to its ownership group since last December, who want to unload the money-losing franchise. Former Major League Baseball pitcher Tom Glavine has said he is willing to form a group to purchase the franchise in order to keep it in Atlanta, but he lacks one very valuable commodity — the money to buy the team.
Meanwhile, the NHL is still working on a deal between Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer and the city council of Glendale to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, but the agreement is so clouded by third-party intervention and the city having to foot the bill that it seems NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is in a no-win position. It’s a deal apparently doomed to fail. At least, that’s what Winnipeg fans are hoping.
The latest entrant in the relocation debate is the Conference Board of Canada, who’s deep-thinkers released a report last Monday which said the financial picture allowing an NHL team to operate in Québec City and Winnipeg had significantly improved in 15 years.
“Compared to the mid-1990s ..., Québec City and Winnipeg have higher populations and increased per capita disposable income, and Canadian franchises enjoy a loonie at parity with its U.S. counterpart,” said Mario Lefebvre, the director for the board’s centre for municipal societies, and one of four authors of the report, The Four Market Pillars at Work: The Case of the Québec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets.
“The prospective teams in both Québec City and Winnipeg would unquestionably be in small markets, but the NHL’s player salary cap would give them a chance to stay competitive with teams in larger cities
But, the board’s report did have a caveat attached. “Whether the overall conditions are sufficient to bring back a team to the passionate fans of either city remains debatable,” according to Lefevbre. “Québec City has a very small corporate presence. Winnipeg’s fans would face a challenge of supporting both NHL and Canadian Football League teams. Overcoming these hurdles will require a lot of work and dedication from all stakeholders.”
I don’t know about Québec City, but I know that True North Sports and Entertainment Inc., the owners of the MTS Centre and the Manitoba Moose of the AHL, have continually expressed their commitment to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg. The media has reported how “dedicated” True North’s Mark Chipman has been to the cause.
In addition, an NHL franchise in Winnipeg has the advantage of the deep-pockets of billionaire David Thomson, a partner in True North and Canada’s richest man.
Having a CFL franchise in Winnipeg should be regarded as a plus rather than a negative, given the dedication of Bomber fans to the team under quite trying circumstances — that is, losing. If an NHL team came to town, there is no reason not to believe the same dedication would not be transferred to a hockey team as it goes through its growing pains. And remember, the football season and the hockey season only briefly overlap.
The Conference Board report estimates the population of a market must match the potential total number of tickets sold in a season. According to an earlier board report, a successful NHL franchise in Canada requires a minimum population of approximately 800,000 people, a mark that Winnipeg is a tad shy of, but the city’s population is growing at a healthy pace, as is the province’s. Any team relocating to Winnipeg would attract fans both from rural and urban Manitoba to the MTS Centre.
The Conference Board report also mentioned that Winnipeg has a limited corporate head office presence. But Winnipeg’s 30 head offices are more than those in Edmonton or Ottawa, cities where NHL teams are located. There is also 13 more corporations headquartered in Winnipeg than in Québec City.
The same report admitted a level playing field exists in favour of NHL teams in Canada, which had not previously existed. When the Jets left Winnipeg in 1996 for Phoenix, one of the primary reasons for the team’s departure was the lack of parity between the Canadian and U.S. dollar. Players’ salaries were paid in American greenbacks, and in relation to the dollar south of the border, the Canadian dollar was at an all-time low.
The board is forecasting that the loonie will remain at parity “for the foreseeable future.
“As a result, Canadian teams are no longer paying an exchange-rate premium on players’ salaries.”
Atlanta or Phoenix? Who cares!
Just end the suspense and bring back the NHL!