CANADA

Double overtime

JAMES DEACON May 29 1995
CANADA

Double overtime

JAMES DEACON May 29 1995

Double overtime

In the inexhaustible lexicon of sport, there are any number of clichés that fit the bill: "never give up," "it ain't over 'til it's over," and on and on. Last week, hockey fans in Winnipeg said all of them and more. A fortnight after teary-eyed politicians and team officials declared the National Hockey League Jets would be sold and moved to another city, diehard Manitobans continued their fight to save the team. En couraged by a late attempt by local busi nessmen to keep the club in Winnipeg, fans emptied pockets and piggy banks and raised $13 million-including 50,000 pennies-in a euphoric, four-day, provincewide Jetsathon. Their passionate "Save our Jets" message resounded from city council to Parliament

Hill. Responding to what federal Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy called “probably the most genuine, profound outpouring of community will and motivation and enthusiasm I’ve seen,” the three levels of government pledged $94 million towards building a new arena. But that was still not enough: when local businessmen failed to make an offer by a May 18 deadline, majority owner Barry Shenkarow announced that he had to honor his agreement to sell the Jets to a group in Minneapolis.

But even then there was uncertainty at week’s end:

Shenkarow said he still had to finalize the details of his $80-million sale to Minneapolis businessman Richard Burke before the

deal was done. That left Winnipeggers with a sinking feeling shared by fans of the Quebec Nordiques—another faltering team in danger of being sold to U.S. interests. At a time when Canadians are traditionally caught up in the excitement of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the off-ice plight of the Jets and Nordiques let loose a wave of emotion and money, even from otherwise tight-fisted politicians. In Winnipeg and Quebec City, despite objections from many colleagues and taxpayers, the wave swamped public officials who had previously balked at supporting privately owned sports franchises. Many claimed that their NHL teams were their cities’ links to the “major leagues,” and the issue became as important as schools, hospitals and roads. In Winnipeg, city council voted to pay a whopping $37 million towards building the arena and another $30 million

for the related infrastructure—parking lots, roads and sewers.

In Quebec City, Premier Jacques Parizeau offered a multimillion-dollar bailout package to the Nordiques in the same week that demonstrators protested the province’s decision to shut down seven hospitals in a costcutting move. But the bailout had several conditions: while offering to buy $17.5 mil-

Hockey fans in Winnipeg and Quebec City fight to save their teams

lion worth of shares in the Nordiques and underwrite up to 70 per cent of the team’s short-term losses, the province would not commit to financing a new arena until the team had demonstrated, among other things, that it could sell 80 corporate boxes in a new rink and keep a lid on its payroll. The Nordiques’ owners rejected those conditions. Team president Marcel Aubut said that without a provincial commitment to immediately build a new arena and provide funds to cover the team’s shortand longterm operating losses, the Nordiques would have to be sold, probably to deep-pocketed buyers in Denver.

The Nordiques countered with a unique proposal: that the province build a casino adjacent to the new arena, and that it divert profits from the casino to cover the team’s deficits. That way, explained team spokesman

Jean Martineau, no tax dollars would be required. ‘What we are telling the government is that it is in their hands,” said Martineau. “If they help, the Nordiques can stay in Quebec for a long time. In they don’t, the team will be sold, that’s for sure.”

Opponents of government subsidies for the two teams were largely drowned out, particularly in Winnipeg where thousands marched in the streets and some radio stations turned saving the Jets into a cause akin to disaster relief. One Winnipeg council member, Rick Boychuk, received death threats after voting against the subsidy. Thin Ice, a Winnipeg group lobbying against the subsidies, said it would be fiscal folly to spend $111 million on a modem 16,000-seat facility with luxury boxes for the Jets when the team failed to sell out the 15,393-seat Winnipeg Arena. “There’s still a silent majority of people out there who are opposed to public money going into this project,” said Thin Ice spokesman Jim Silver. In Ottawa, Bloc Québécois House leader Michel Gau-

thier claimed the government had “diverted money from other places to give it to a team of millionaires.” Gauthier added: ‘We can’t invest citizens’ money at the same time as we close hospitals, cut social transfers and lay off 45,000 bureaucrats.”

Despite last week’s events, it still wasn’t over ’til it was over. While Winnipeggers hoped against hope that the Minnesota deal would somehow fall through, the Quebec Nordiques were trying to arrange a last-gasp meeting with Parizeau. The players, like their fans, were prepared for the worst. “It will be hard to leave if it happens,” said Nordiques captain Joe Sakic. “But it’s all part of hockey.” And NHL hockey, as fans in small-market cities are discovering to their dismay, has become a privilege, not a right.

JAMES DEACON