Winnipeg Gets an Ice Hockey Team Back in Manitoban Renaissance

After Winnipeg won the World Hockey Association’s Avco Cup in the spring of 1979, things went pretty much downhill -- for the Jets and the city.

Once the center of western Canada’s economy, the prairie capital stalled through the 1980s and 1990s as grain prices fell. Historic buildings were abandoned, and Portage Avenue -- considered by some the coldest stretch of pavement on Earth -- became Canada’s largest skid row, according to a story in the June 27 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek.

“Nobody built a damn thing in Winnipeg in the 1990s,” says Martin Cash, a one-time Jets fan and business writer for the Winnipeg Free Press. “I mean, it was grim.”

In the fall of 1979, the Jets joined the National Hockey League. As the league was expanding, Winnipeg was contracting. In 1996, the Jets moved to Phoenix.

Sam Katz, a former concert promoter who is now the mayor, says he is haunted by images of children emptying their piggy banks at “Save the Jets” rallies.

“It felt like someone put their fist through your rib cage and pulled out your heart,” Katz said.

Since his election in 2004, Katz has overseen a Manitoban renaissance. Buoyed by high commodity prices and booming industries such as agribusiness, biotech, aerospace and insurance, the city boasts one of Canada’s most diverse economies and lowest unemployment rates.

The resurgence continued on May 31, when investors purchased the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers for $110 million and announced a move of the franchise to Winnipeg.

“Watching that press conference was one of the best moments of my life,” said Claude Ouimet, who celebrated by wearing a signed Bobby Hull jersey and watching old Jets games at 4Play Sports Bar in downtown Winnipeg. “It was like seeing the Rolling Stones.”

True North

The team’s new owner is True North Sports & Entertainment, led by David Thomson, chairman of Thomson Reuters Corp. and Canada’s richest person, and Mark Chipman, a car dealership magnate. The franchise will play at the MTS Centre.

“We do not expect to be covering losses here,” says True North President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Ludlow. “It’s largely plug-and-play. It’s not like we’re bringing in a cricket team.”

The rest of the city wants to benefit from puckonomics. Dave Angus, CEO of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, said “a major-league city translates into business.”

Service businesses are the most likely to reap immediate benefits, says Angus.

Oreanna Cheater, who opened 4Play across from the MTS Centre in 2010, said business may double next season as fans return for televised curling tournaments.

Chicken Wings

Craig Evans, CEO of Granny’s Poultry Cooperative, said “a doubling of wing volume in the city is not unrealistic.” Granny’s expects sales of the company’s signature boneless Wingstix -- now Jetstix -- to jump to 20,000 pounds from 4,000.

While the team’s management attends the NHL draft in Minneapolis on June 24, Jacques Lavergne, director of sales and marketing at the Fairmont Winnipeg, will be in a nearby convention center pitching his property to NHL travel managers. Becoming the official visitor’s hotel could translate into 4,000 room-nights a year, he says, with increased spending by players and fans at on-site restaurants.

Belinda Bigold, the owner of High Tea Bakery, is taking a record number of orders for her signature Jets jersey cookies. She expects to sell thousands of the $2.50 confections this year, up from 600 during the between-times. “Winnipeggers will go berserk for the next couple years,” says Bigold. “Every corporation involved will order something special with the logo on it.”

Economic Realism

Enthusiasm has its limits.

“We need to be careful not to overstate what the NHL will do for the economy,” says Ryan A. Compton, a professor of economics at the University of Manitoba. “It won’t turn Winnipeg into Calgary.”

Still, Derek Holt, a vice-president at Toronto-based Scotia Capital Inc., is optimistic.

“More fundamentally,” he says, “there’s not a Canadian who doesn’t relish the thought of hockey being played back in a city where the guy sitting beside you doesn’t smell like suntan lotion.”

The new Winnipeg franchise will be the NHL’s seventh Canadian team, joining the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.

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