Naylor: Winnipeg is done, but questions still remain

Dave Naylor
6/2/2011 2:16:07 PM
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In the aftermath of the NHL's announced return to Winnipeg, a couple of questions emerge that are being debated well beyond the Manitoba Capital.

Why did this happen and what does it really mean?

There's been a fair amount of spin on those two questions over the past few days, from fans, from the principles involved and also from the league which has a delicate task of trying to manage the message on something it was trying to avoid doing.

Although NHL commissioner Gary Bettman spoke about the league "correcting" something that happened in the past, one can guess there wasn't a folder labeled "Return to Winnipeg" anywhere in the NHL business office.

In fact, the return to Winnipeg is by anything but by design. It is the byproduct of a failure which occurred somewhere else.

When the NHL returned to the city of Atlanta in 1999, it was as part of the NHL's grand business plan to have a presence in as many large American markets as possible. When the NHL returned to Winnipeg it was because the league had an urgent problem to solve and had to call an audible from outside its playbook.

Though Bettman suggested this week that the NHL had a half-dozen options to which it could have moved the Thrashers, it's hard to imagine what cities presently exist with a suitable building and an owner willing to pay what the league considers market value for a franchise ($170 million).

And there is every reason to believe that if such options existed in the United States that the league, which just signed its new billion-dollar television deal with NBC, would want to fully explore each of them before looking north. That's not being anti-Canadian as much as simply logical that a league which just signed a billion-dollar TV deal with NBC would want to keep as strong a presence in the U.S. as possible.

Though Bettman has been often criticized for having double standards when it comes to the issue of relocation, the commissioner has been absolutely consistent in this regard throughout his term. Under Bettman, franchises have only been permitted to relocate when there's been no one willing to own a team where it exists.

Which was the case in Quebec City and Winnipeg back in the mid-90s and is exactly the case in Atlanta, one of two markets that has demonstrated that the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the league in 2005 is far from fool proof for teams that can't draw enough fans in a gate-driven league.

The other is of course Phoenix, where the team is still owned by the league while having its losses underwritten by the generous taxpayers of Glendale, Arizona.

One of these days, that city of a quarter-million people is going to get tired of doing that. And when it does, (although given the stubbornness on that city council, who knows when that might be?), there's a very decent chance the Coyotes may still be without an owner.

That is unless the league can come up with some way to fetch $170 million for a team that bled $37 million in losses last season alone. That has been, and figures to continue to be, a formidable challenge.

So no surprise that the folks in Quebec City were paying so close attention this week to the NHL's message regarding Atlanta to Winnipeg.

In Quebec City they've already approved the money for an NHL arena, with the city and provincial governments committing almost $400 million and then striking a management contract with prospective NHL owner Pierre-Karl Peladeau. That contract is the source of some controversy within Quebec politics right now, but it figures to be a minor roadblock towards a building that seems sure to be built.

The powers that be in Quebec aren't doing this for nothing. They're doing it because they see what everyone else can see, that despite crushing the players union during the lockout, the NHL hasn't been able to solve the financial woes of teams that have attendance issues.

There probably isn't a folder labeled "get back to Quebec City" anywhere in the NHL business office either.

But with the league having at least one more major problem still to solve, and no answer in sight, the city that is ready, willing and able to provide a solution won't be hard to spot.

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