By Tom Carson, Director of the Manitoba Office
While there remains one more hurdle—selling 13,000 season tickets within three weeks—Winnipeg appears destined to bolster western Canada's presence in the NHL by adding another team. Yes, western Canada, with almost 31% of the nation’s population will have four (or nearly 60%) of Canada's seven NHL teams.
In 1996 when Winnipeg lost its NHL franchise, several economic factors drove the end of the city's presence in the league. These issues have since been minimized throughout the years, which should secure Winnipeg’s position in the league going forward:
The Winnipeg Arena was considered to be the finest facility in western North America when it was built in 1955, when Winnipeg was Canada's third-largest city. The Arena was renovated in 1979 and expanded to accommodate 15,565 people. Owned by an agency of the City of Winnipeg, it did not provide the revenue potential that owners needed nor the modern amenities and entertainment potential expected in today's facilities. In contrast, the city's new arena (2004) is a full season multiplex owned by True North Sports and Entertainment Limited, the owners of the new hockey club. For hockey, it can accommodate 15,015 people, which is not large by NHL standards (the smallest of 30 NHL arenas ranging from 16,234 to 21,273 seats). However, size is not everything: five NHL clubs had lower than 15,000 average attendance in 2009/10, many of them were substantially lower.
The 1996 ownership of the Winnipeg Jets did not have the means to backstop the growing financial risks that came from the rising salaries and operating costs associated with NHL expansion into the US. By comparison, True North Sports and Entertainment has spent the past decade learning the market, done its due diligence and the ownership team of David Thompson and Mark Chipman has the means and knowledge to support a team in the current Western economy, provided that the fan base is as strong as Manitobans believe.
The Canadian dollar was very weak in 1996. NHL hockey salaries were paid in US dollars and in Canada, every player's salary dollar cost the club at least $1.36. Prior to the negotiations that ended the 2004/05 lockout the NHL had no luxury tax, revenue sharing, salary cap or salary floor.
Manitoba's population was 1,134,000 in 1996, and the capital region of Winnipeg was 684,100. Today, after posting its highest growth rate in 40 years, the estimated population is projected to stand at 1,250,900 with the CMA at 764,200. Although it has the smallest NHL population by at least 250,000, the region is a deeply knowledgeable and committed hockey population.
All in all, a stronger Canadian dollar, a well-designed new facility, a province more confident in its economic future, a growing population, a greater local sense of pride and a rabid fan base are all pieces of the package that make this potential NHL franchise far different from the one Manitobans lost in 1996.