CANADA

OUT IN THE COLD

Losing the Jets is a body blow to Winnipeg’s pride

JAMES DEACON May 15 1995
CANADA

OUT IN THE COLD

Losing the Jets is a body blow to Winnipeg’s pride

JAMES DEACON May 15 1995

OUT IN THE COLD

CANADA

With their team down by one goal in the waning minutes of the season’s final game last week,

Winnipeg hockey fans stood and cheered, exhorting the home-town Jets to come back against the visiting Los Angeles Kings. It was an emotional and prolonged outpouring of support, prompted by the fact that, earlier in the day, last-ditch efforts to keep the money-losing team in the Manitoba capital appeared to have failed. As the seconds ticked away, for both the game and the franchise, the 15,562 fans at the Winnipeg Arena changed their chant from “Go Jets go!” to “Save our Jets!” And when the game finally ended—the Jets lost 2-1—fans and players shared a teary send-off, a lingering parting of old friends. Later, players such as veteran centre Thomas Steen, who has been a Jet for all his 14 years in the National Hockey League, were too distraught to talk to reporters in the sombre locker-room. “There were a few wet eyes in our dressing room tonight,” explained centre Randy Gilhen. “I don’t think the guys realized until tonight how much the people really care.”

After 22 seasons, the Jets’ history in Winnipeg came to an end last week. The team will soon be sold to another city—Minneapolis, At-

lanta and even Hamilton are possible destinations. “I guess that’s the next job at hand,” said a disconsolate Barry Shenkarow, the team’s president and majority owner, as he announced the demise. But the outcome, however devastating to the people of Winnipeg, was no surprise. Shenkarow had long warned that, without a publicly funded arena with luxury boxes and other revenue-generating amenities, the team would not be able to survive in the NHL. Although the city and provincial governments helped out financially, and a business group called the Manitoba Entertainment Complex pledged to buy the team and help raise funds to build a new arena, no one was willing to absorb the ongoing operating losses of the franchise. And the league, which has to approve any ownership changes, was not prepared to permit the sale to local buyers without that guarantee. “If this team is preordained to move,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the day before the announcement, “then let’s get it over with before the public invests $140 million in a new arena.”

During the preceding weeks, the debate over the Jets’ fate had become emotional as much as political as Winnipeggers contemplated the loss of their beloved hockey team. Fans turned their anger on Bettman

Losing the Jets is a body blow to Winnipeg’s pride

and the league after local officials, including MEC chairman John Loewen, Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon and Winnipeg Mayor Susan Thompson, charged that the NHL had made unfair demands of the purchasers. Among other things, the league insisted that the MEC agree to keep the team in Winnipeg for a reasonable period—Bettman suggested five years—and underwrite all losses during that time. At a downtown rally attended by about 1,000 fans last week, Filmon responded with indignation to the NHL’s “last-minute” conditions. “Hockey is a Canadian tradition—it’s part of our heritage and the NHL has got to play ball with us,” said Filmon, who made saving the Jets a major part of his sue-

cessful campaign for re-election on April 25. “Gary Bettman and his little group of wealthy owners have no right to take Canada out of the game.”

Bettman scoffed at the suggestion that the demands came at the last minute, and said that it was politically expedient for Manitoba officials to blame the NHL and I Americans for the Jets’ financial failure. Bettman said ° the conditions stipulated by the league were simply designed to ensure that a publicly funded arena could count on having a primary tenant. “If [those conditions] are what is driving the team out,”

Bettman said, “then maybe the team doesn’t belong there in the first place.” Critics in Winnipeg, meanwhile, maintained that local officials had known for weeks of the league’s demands, which essentially made MEC’s purchase unviable, but had kept them quiet during the election campaign.

The league was not alone in looking out for taxpayers’ interests. Thin Ice, a group that has lobbied against the use of public funds to support the team, claimed that the MEC purchase would ultimately cost taxpayers $131 million, not $88 million as outlined in the consortium’s proposal. “If any ordinary business person were to take such a business plan to a financial institution, they would be thrown out the door,” said Thin Ice spokesman Jim Silver, a political science professor at the University of Winnipeg. Silver said taxpayers have already spent too much.

In 1985, for instance, the city bought onethird of the team for $2.8 million, and in 1991, the province assumed half of the city’s shares and the two governments agreed to cover all subsequent operating losses—a total of about $18 million since then.

Taxpayers have propped up other Canadian NHL teams in so-called small-market centres. But in Edmonton and Calgary, where community-owned arenas were virtually handed over to their teams debt-free, die franchises in turn signed long-term leases to stay in those cities. In Ottawa, meanwhile, the Senators are banking their future on revenues from a privately financed, $200-million facility under construction in suburban Kanata. The only team facing a fate similar to that of the Jets is in Quebec City, where Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut is campaigning for a new, publicly funded stadium to replace the cramped Colisée. Last week, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau offered to finance the arena, but only if the team capped its expenditures and allowed the province to buy into the team—conditions that Aubut was expected to reject. If Parizeau’s bailout fails, the Nordiques will also likely head

south, possibly to Denver.

Bettman, the former National Basketball Association vice-president who was hired in 1993 to boost the NHL into the top echelon of professional sports, expressed sadness at Winnipeg’s loss. ‘We regret that the Jets appear to be leaving,” he said, adding that “it appears no one in the private sector believes that a team in Winnipeg is economically viable.” Earlier, Bettman had told a group of newspaper publishers in Toronto that there are bound to be casualties in such a high-stakes business. But he said that despite the problems of the Jets and the Nordiques, the NHL remains strongly rooted in Canada. “I do not think that Winnipeg is the bellwether of hockey’s health in Canada,” he said.

Shenkarow, who took control of the Jets just before they joined the NHL from the defunct World Hockey Association in 1979, said that operating costs, including skyrocketing payrolls, had simply outgro wn the team’s ability to generate revenue. “For a purely business transaction, the NHL is too big for Winnipeg,” he said. “I think everybody

knows that.” By failing to find a local buyer, he and his partners, including local governments, would profit handsomely if they were to sell to an American bidder. To keep the franchise in Winnipeg, they had agreed to sell the Jets to the MEC for $32 million, compared with the anticipated $90 million they can expect to get on the open market.

But that was little consolation in a city stripped of its team. “What was great for me and all my hockey-playing friends was that the NHL never seemed like a million miles away,” said Gilhen, who grew up in Winnipeg. “It was something you could really relate to. It’s a shame the kids here have to lose that.” Among the fans who jammed the Arena and booed the American anthem when it was played before last week’s final game, there was grief and a strong sense of loss. “I can’t believe this is the last game in this arena,” said Lissa Palamar, a 28-year-old physical education teacher. ‘We have awfiilly long winters here. Now what are we going to do?”

GLORY DAYS

1972: Jets sign NHL superstar Bobby Hull for $1 million and play their first game in the new World Hockey Association.

1976: Jets win first of three Avco Cups as WHA champions (they also won in 1978 and 1979).

1979: The WHA folds; Winnipeg, Hartford, Quebec and Edmonton join the NHL.

1985: Jets finish season with best-ever total of 96 points. The city of Winnipeg purchases 36-per-cent interest in the Jets for $2.8 million.

1988: Barry Shenkarow claims the club is losing money and without a new arena, it may have to leave Winnipeg.

1991: Province splits city’s 36-per-cent ownership of the Jets, and the two agree to cover the team’s operating losses until 1997.

1994: The Manitoba Entertainment Complex, a private business consortium, promises to raise money for a new arena.

May 3,1995: Final efforts to keep the team in Winnipeg fail.

JAMES DEACON with DONALD MACGILLIVRAY in Winnipeg

DONALD MACGILLIVRAY