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Winnipeg Jets owner endorses Saskatoon as NHL city, with one concern

Greg Wyshynski
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Saskatoon's bid to become an NHL city has picked up some endorsements recently.

Kelvington, Saskatchewan's own Barry Melrose said that "several dozen people" from his hometown would buy season tickets.

Don Cherry indicated on Coach's Corner that Saskatoon can support an NHL team. "I can't guarantee it this year, but I know I'll guarantee that if they ever got in, they'd do it," he said. (We assume he then said something about mandating that a team in Saskatoon have the requisite number of Ontario-born players because THEY'RE THE BEST IN THE WORLD BURKE.)

But perhaps slightly more significantly, Saskatoon was put over recently by someone who isn't a former coach-turned-television personality but a guy who understands how small-market Canadian cities can attract and support NHL franchises: Mark Chipman, the man who brought the Winnipeg Jets back to Manitoba.

"The most gratifying aspect of having brought the team back to Winnipeg, by far, is the effect it's had on our psyche — the pure unleashing of pride in our community," he told the Star Phoenix this week. "If we can have even a ripple effect on that occurring in Saskatchewan, that would be unbelievable."

That said, he does have a concern about the market.

The Conference Board of Canada released a study in 2012 that set a minimum population base of 750,000 people for an NHL team to thrive in a Canadian city — roughly the population of Winnipeg. Saskatoon's population is 222,000, with 35,000 people in the metropolitan area, according to the 2011 census.

Chipman said he has no doubts about Saskatchewan supporting a team … if they'll come to the games. From the Star Phoenix:

"The only question is how far will people drive to get to a game? That's the only question I have in my mind." Chipman says his team's season-ticket base includes buyers in far-flung places like Regina, Thompson, and northwestern Ontario.

"I'd have to imagine that's part of the reason there is an interest in Saskatchewan — because just a few-hundred miles to the east of you, you've got an example that's working right now," Chipman said. "Provincially, our population bases are basically the same. Yours is just scattered out far more than ours is. There's 700,000-plus people in Winnipeg, but we draw from all over the province."

So what's the outlook to that end? Saskatoon Silver Springs MLA Ken Cheveldayoff, whose brother Kevin happens to be Chipman's GM with the Jets, recently told Terry Jones of QMI:

"There are four areas involved here. You need an arena which is NHL ready. You need a business community ready to support it by buying suites and sponsorship. You need fans ready to buy tickets. And you need the NHL to want it to happen."

Cheveldayoff said he thinks a significant percentage of the corporate support would come from the potash and uranium mining sectors.  He thinks there would be a much higher percentage of people splitting season tickets four ways -- fans would be willing to drive significant distance, such as they do for 10 Saskatchewan Roughrider games a year -- and they'd sell out in no time at all.

As he said: "Winnipeg changed the modeling for the NHL." The rabid response from that community for ticket sales, gear sales and corporate support may have opened the door to Make It Eight one day.

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