Enjoy this, Winnipeg. Soak it up and celebrate. Fifteen years after you lost an NHL team, after so many false starts and false hopes, you have another NHL team now. The highest level of hockey is coming home to the Canadian heartland.
But make no mistake: This is not what the NHL wanted. This was a last resort. Just because the Atlanta Thrashers have been sold and will be relocated to Manitoba – pending the approval of the league's board of governors on June 21 – does not mean the team will succeed or necessarily even stay for good.
Business took the Jets from Winnipeg and made them the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996. Business took the Thrashers from Atlanta and will make them whatever they will be called now. And business – not nationalism, not romanticism, not anything else – will determine where this team goes from here, and it faces plenty of challenges and uncertainties.
The NHL did not allow the Thrashers to be sold to a group intending to move them to Manitoba because the league wanted a seventh Canadian team. It did not do this dreaming of prairie kids playing pond hockey.
Canadians want to own the game. But the owners want to grow the game – and therefore grow their revenues and their profits. The league wanted the Thrashers to work in Atlanta, a large market with a large corporate base and a large affluent population, not to mention a large group of transplanted northerners who, in theory, could help transplant the sport.
But the Thrashers had bad ownership, bad management and a bad team for much of their brief tenure. They made the playoffs once in their 11 seasons and got swept. They parted with their best players – Dany Heatley(notes), Marian Hossa(notes), Ilya Kovalchuk(notes). They never gave the sport a chance to succeed, and attendance plummeted.
"I think people would go (to games in Atlanta)," said Ray Ferraro, a Canadian and 18-year NHL veteran, who played for the Thrashers from 1999-2002, their first three seasons. "It's just, they're not going to watch loss after loss after loss. They just aren't – in any market, in any sport. OK. Let's talk about Winnipeg. Say that team goes there and they have four playoff games in the next 10 years. You think the building's going to be full?"
Ferraro isn't saying that the NHL won't work in Winnipeg again or that he doesn't want it to work this time. He's saying he doesn't know if it will work. The truth is that no one really knows.
The landscape is definitely different than it was when the Jets left 15 years ago. Winnipeg has a new arena and a committed ownership group. The NHL has a salary cap and a revenue-sharing system. The Canadian dollar is strong.
There no doubt will be a honeymoon period in Winnipeg. People will buy tickets. The MTS Centre will be sold out and loud. The team might even contend for a playoff spot from the get-go.
This is not an expansion team. The lucky part for Winnipeg – and the unfortunate part for Atlanta, which does have some die-hard hockey fans and countless others who will never know what they were missing – is that the Thrashers were the NHL's surprise team the first half of the season before falling off. They have an up-and-coming core of players, headlined by defenseman Dustin Byfuglien(notes).
The problem is that Winnipeg's arena will be the smallest in the NHL. It seats only about 15,000, which means even if it is sold out for every game it can average only about 1,500 more fans than the Thrashers at least claim to have drawn last season.
Though the NHL has a salary cap and a revenue-sharing system, too many teams are still losing millions of dollars, too many are still looking for buyers or investors, and the collective bargaining agreement expires after next season.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, painted as a villain when the Jets left under his watch, now must be the new team's champion. He must not only keep the new system in negotiations among the owners and with the NHL Players' Association, now led by executive director Don Fehr, he must try to tighten the system so that small-market teams can compete on the ice and be viable enterprises.
Oh, and the Canadian dollar better not weaken again, too.
Passion is not enough, as Winnipeg proved the first time. Population is not enough, as Atlanta has proven twice now, already having lost the Flames to Calgary in 1980. There must be a mix of the two, and it comes down to economics. Some foresee a northern migration, with the NHL returning to Quebec City, which plans to build an arena, and the league putting a second team in southern Ontario. Maybe so, but only if the system allows and market forces dictate.
Let's assume the landscape stays just as it is today. The new team must operate with maximum support and efficiency just to make it work. What if Winnipeg can't keep up as the salary cap and salary floor continue to rise? What if the team can't keep its own players and attract free agents? What if it fails to draft and develop well? What if it doesn't win year after year? Will the people of Winnipeg continue to support it enough? Should they?
Why did the NHL leave a large American market and return to the small Canadian market of Winnipeg?
Because the Thrashers stunk and never connected with enough fans in Atlanta. Because the Thrashers' ownership group fought within itself, lost a lot of money, couldn't find a local buyer and couldn't wait to sell. Because the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, Ariz., pledged a second payment of $25 million to cover the NHL's losses while it works on the sale of the Coyotes. Because a $60 million fee for relocating the Thrashers will help, too.
Because the Winnipeg ownership group kept its mouth shut and checkbook open as a backup plan for a long time – unlike BlackBerry baron Jim Balsillie, who made repeated public attempts to strongarm his way into NHL ownership. Because Winnipeg, with its loyal, hungry fans, can provide something of a happy ending.
But this is just the beginning, and there is only one way this story can be happy: Now that the good people of Winnipeg have an NHL team again, they have to keep it.