On April 28, 1996, the Detroit Red Wings beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-1 to close out their first round Western Conference playoff series in six games. Not only would that game mark the end of the season for the Jets, it closed the curtains on hockey in the that particular Prairie Town as a deal had been put in place to relocate the team to Phoenix where it would become the Coyotes.
And that was that. The mid-90s were not a great time for hockey fans in Canada. The Colorado Avalanche, who had relocated from Quebec City the previous summer would actually win the Stanley Cup in 1996, while the following year the Edmonton Oilers would narrowly avoid joining the seemingly inevitable southern exodus when a group of local businessmen stepped in to stop Leslie Alexander's bid to move the team.
As time went on, Winnipeg built a new arena, The MTS Centre, for the AHL not the NHL. The common wisdom being its capacity of 15,004 would make it too small for the NHL. The common wisdom also said that the NHL's future lay in the southern markets. In the coming years, the common wisdom would be turned on its head.
Quietly, and behind the scenes, The True North Sports and Entertainment Group, which owned the Manitoba Moose of the AHL, was working with the NHL, letting it know that if the opportunity arose it would was ready. And when the Atlanta Thrashers couldn't find a local owner in 2011, it got its chance. However, the groundwork had been laid before that.
From The National Post:
League commissioner Gary Bettman spoke here Tuesday about True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman’s "patience, perseverance, professionalism and persistence."
What Bettman was really talking about was at least three previous engagements by Chipman with other NHL clubs in a variety of distress.
One of those dates back to mid-2007, when the True North chairman was introduced to then-Nashville Predators owner Craig Leopold.
A face-to-face meeting, with Bettman’s blessing, took place quietly in Nashville.
"It was just purely exploratory," Chipman said. "Their ownership was looking to sell that team and they were in a position where the team could not only have been sold but moved. In the end, very quickly, a local ownership group emerged and as you have seen, that’s the NHL’s M.O. — they don’t like teams moving.
"When the ownership group emerged there, that was the end of the discussion."
The Predators were eventually sold to that local group led by David Freeman in late 2007.
It's worth noting that another suitor for the Predators, Blackberry chief Jim Balsillie, took another approach and as of this writing doesn't own an NHL team.
Anyway, True North kept on working, again from the National Post.
Fast forward about two years and Chipman received another contact, this time out of the blue from a member of the Atlanta Thrashers ownership group.
"It was a short-lived conceptual discussion that never really amounted to anything," Chipman said. "I don’t know what else I can say other than it came at a time when their ownership was exploring for the first time the idea of selling their team. It was exploratory and never materialized."
The discussion ended as quickly as it started in 2009 because the NHL deemed the contact unsuitable at the time.
In the spring of 2010, True North again found itself talking about an NHL franchise, this time the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes. The Winnipeg group went a long way down the road to a potential purchase before the city of Glendale, in late May, came up with the $25 million cash demanded by the NHL to cover the team’s losses in the desert for 2010-11.
That process set the table for Chipman’s ultimate successful play that concluded this week with the sale of the Thrashers.
Which brings us to the current situation facing Seattle. Granted, Winnipeg is not Seattle and the NHL is not the NBA. But those differences aside the underlying lesson is that patience pays off. Maybe not as quickly as we'd like, but then again it is easy to forget how far things have progressed in the last year-and-a-half. From around October 2008, I've had a Google alert for "Seattle NBA" set-up, and it was pret-ty grim for awhile. Now, at least there's hope. How much is up for debate, but at least there's a foot in the door (current cost of said foot: $625milllion).
And as time moves on, and the sting of the vote and "I've got a game to get to in Oklahoma City" wears off (although speaking personally, Chris Hansen's interview with Softy a few weeks ago acted as a hell of a salve after being burned by the NBA) let's look ahead. Unlike Winnipeg, the stars (or at least the tweets from San Francisco-area radio hosts) seem to point towards expansion. We'll just have to wait for it.