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Why Not Winnipeg?

Making headlines this past week is that Pittsburgh has finally come to an agreement to keep the Penguins in town for 30 more years. Construction will commence this spring on a new venue to replace the crumbling Mellon Arena, opening in time for the 2009-10 season.

But the debate on which markets would support an NHL team will not die anytime soon. Throughout the negotiations, the spotlight has been placed on other cities as potential new homes for the NHL. Leading the pack has been Kansas City, with its exciting new downtown Sprint Center opening this fall.

And there were others: Business interests in Oklahoma City jumped into the fray, touting Tulsa and its new Bank of Oklahoma Arena as a new home for the Penguins. NHL Chief Legal Officer Bill Daly made noises last month that Las Vegas would make a fine destination for the league, this after that city staged the NBA All Star Game.

Las Vegas? Beneath the veneer of seeming All Star success were ugly stories of shootings, other acts of violence and a melee at a strip club with NFL bad boy Pac Man Jones right at the center of the controversy. Yes, now let’s bring in the NHL!

In the midst of all this speculation, who is making the argument for Winnipeg? Who is espousing the benefits of burgeoning Canadian markets, with rabid fans eager to become part of the NHL family?

Waiting in the wings are hockey cities ready to embrace or in some cases re-embrace the NHL and bring a much-needed infusion of grassroots, fan-generated excitement into the sport.

From Buffalo’s point of view, things around the league appear dandy. Our games are sold out and interest in the Sabres has never been higher; each weekend we tune in to Hockey Night in Canada and see the packed arenas and the fervent interest in hockey. Gleaming new junior rinks are opening across the OHL, many within a quick drive from the Peace Bridge.

But look closely and there are troubling signs. Several markets are playing games before oceans of empty seats, including St. Louis, Florida, Phoenix, last year’s Stanley Cup champions Carolina and even New Jersey, whose team is stocked for another Cup run.

It gets worse when you look at the television contracts: ESPN kicked hockey to the curb after the lockout and the league signed on with Versus, which can be found on the dial somewhere between the Food Network and C-Span. Viewership numbers have been disappointing, the NHL All Star Game in January drew a dismal 0.7 rating and that number would have been worse if the Buffalo market hadn’t goosed up that figure with a respectable 7.1 local rating. As for the All Star Game’s host city, Dallas, if you had done a random poll through their West End entertainment district, you’d find for the most part people didn’t even know the event was going on.

Winnipeg hockey fans had their beloved Jets brutally ripped from that city in 1996. Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen played his first eight seasons for the Jets, and remembers well what it was like. “There was just a sense of profound sadness all over the city,” Numminen recalled. “Everyone knew the team was leaving, and when it came to the final game, even the players got caught up in the sadness and the emotion.”

Darren Ford is a hockey enthusiast living in Winnipeg and has become the torchbearer for fans seeking a new NHL team there. He maintains a Web site at www.jetsowner.com. Asked if there is the financial pull in Winnipeg for the cost of a franchise, Ford replied, “What I can tell you is that there is most definitely serious interest among Winnipeg’s financially elite to bring the NHL back here. It is done in a very underground, quiet manner, which is probably the best way to go. Many people fear that because Winnipeg isn’t jumping up and down with rah-rah quotes in the media, the NHL isn’t taking note. Believe me, the NHL is fully aware of Winnipeg and our ability to house the NHL once again.”

Since the Jets left, Winnipeg Arena has been replaced with the gorgeous new MTS Centre, a 15,000-seat, state-of-the-art arena in downtown Winnipeg. But can the NHL make such a relatively small building work? “Absolutely,” replied Ford. “We have perhaps one of the best markets in North America to sell hockey in. Never mind small-market, large-market debates. Raw population has little to do with a city’s ability to sell hockey. The bottom line is that Winnipeg has ample corporate support as well as the long-term fan support to fill 15,000-plus seats night after night.”

Numminen pointed out Winnipeg’s size. “It really is such a small city. Do you think they could draw the large crowds?” he asked.

“But I will say this,” he added. “They were such wonderful fans up there, so into the game. You don’t find that sort of enthusiasm in the south.”

Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean took NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to task during a spirited interview at the All Star Game back in January, a discussion which surely drew cheers in Canadian living rooms from Victoria to Newfoundland. When MacLean asked directly if Winnipeg could return to the NHL, Bettman stammered, “We haven’t studied it, but we haven’t ruled it out.”

Undaunted, MacLean continued hammering, suggesting a Canadian-based expansion, adding two teams in Winnipeg and in Halifax, and even put up a graphic showing divisional realignment based on horizontal geographical lines, with an all-Canadian division consisting of eight teams. Bettman bobbed and weaved, sarcastically telling MacLean, “I’m surprised you think we have the talent to stock 32 teams.”

MacLean is right. The NHL is ripe for a larger Canadian footprint. AndWinnipeg isn’t the only Canadian city ready for an NHL franchise. Quebec City hasn’t been the same since the Nordiques relocated to Colorado in 1995. Le Colisee Pepsi is still standing and home of the city’s junior team, and could adequately house the NHL for the time being. Former Nordiques Governor Marcel Aubut has been making the argument for a new arena and NHL team for Quebec.

Then there is Hamilton, a city still reeling from being snubbed in 1990, when the NHL opted instead to add expansion teams in Ottawa and Tampa Bay. Copps Coliseum was built in 1985 with the specific goal of luring an NHL franchise, but the building is nowhere near adequate for today’s NHL. Hamilton and the extended market encompassing Kitchener and Waterloo again became a focus in recent months, when billionaire businessman Jim Balsillie made overtures to buy the Penguins, and speculation began that Balsillie might want to bring the NHL to his home region.

Hamilton has territorial rights issues with Toronto and Buffalo. But remember back in the 1960s when the Leafs’ Stafford Smythe fought tooth and nail against Buffalo’s NHL bid? He claimed that the hockey product would be diluted in this region. Looking today at the tremendous Sabres/Leafs rivalry and the intense fan interest, in hindsight Smythe’s argument looks completely foolish. The same lessons could be applied today to an NHL team in Hamilton.

The ideas for the NHL’s return to glory are endless: Prune the American-based teams playing in dispassionate markets; get a real national TV contract; make high-definition telecasts the standard and not an occasional curiosity. We could go on and on. But at the top of the list is a seeming no-brainer: Return the NHL to at least two Canadian cities where passion for the sport runs high.

Unfortunately, Bettman is the guy with the say, and for now, it is the pursuit of corporate sponsors, gross rating points and opulent luxury suites which seems to have his attention. We can only hope his mindset changes someday soon.

TARO SEZ…

■ The boo birds at HSBC Arena have just about obliterated Nicholas Picholas from the arena screens, so they are now turning their derisive focus towards anthem singer Doug Allen, one of the more solid performers in the NHL. What’s next, a beheading of Sabretooth?

■ While the 25-game suspension of the New York Islander’s Chris Simon sends a strong message, does anyone really believe this will put an end to the mayhem going on down on the ice? If the owners want to protect their assets, then NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell should execute on their behalf or they should fire him.

■ Goalie Ty Conklin may not be as chatty as Marty Biron was, but he is making friends with the fans. Conklin has been the last guy off the ice at recent morning skates, hanging around to sign autographs.