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Hayden Goethe, Published May 22 2011

Goethe: Improving landscape bolsters WInnipeg's NHL chances

FARGO - Fargo-Moorhead could find itself smack-dab in between two National Hockey League markets.

Google’s map website lists the time it takes to travel from Fargo to Winnipeg to be five minutes less than the time it takes to travel from Fargo to St. Paul. So if Thursday night’s report that the Atlanta Thrashers will move to Winnipeg is true, hockey fans in the

F-M area could find themselves just a four-hour drive from two NHL home arenas.

That hasn’t been the case in nearly two decades, when both the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota North Stars were in existence. The North Stars left for Dallas in 1993. The Jets headed south three years later, moving to Phoenix to become the Coyotes.

St. Paul was granted an expansion team that opened play in 2000 with the arrival of the Minnesota Wild. It was reported the team lost money this past season after years of selling out every game at Xcel Energy Center.

Plenty has changed in the NHL since the Jets played their last game. But the question remains: Can the NHL work in Winnipeg this time?

“I wouldn’t be running this campaign for eight years if I didn’t think so,” Darren Ford said.

Ford is the man behind a “Return the Jets” internet campaign at www.jetsowner.com. He notes that plenty has changed since the Jets took the ice 15 years ago.

Ford lists three keys to Winnipeg’s recent NHL push:

E An arena. The Jets played at Winnipeg Arena, which was more than 50 years old when it was demolished in 2006. Winnipeg’s new arena is the MTS Centre, a 15,500-seat facility that opened in 2004. As Ford points out, Winnipeg Arena wasn’t owned by the Jets owners, meaning that the team didn’t collect on concession or parking revenues. The MTS Centre is owned by the same group trying to buy the Thrashers. Many teams lease their home rink for 41 games. That won’t be the case with a Winnipeg team.

“The (Winnipeg Arena) was not modern by any stretch of the imagination,” Ford said. “It just wasn’t a great venue. There wasn’t an ownership group that wanted to take on that.”

E The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement. Back when the Jets played, there was no salary cap. It was an uphill battle for small-market teams that couldn’t afford to spend as much as teams in Montreal, Toronto and New York. The current NHL landscape does have a salary cap to keep a level playing field.

E Proper ownership group. One of the partners of the group looking to purchase the Thrashers and move them to Winnipeg is the richest man in Canada.

Plenty of factors are now working in Winnipeg’s favor. And that’s led to a pretty excited city. A rally of sorts broke out in the city Thursday night after news broke of the Thrashers purchase being agreed upon. Ford was there and said about 500 to 700 young people took part.

But there have been plenty of close calls that have come up short in Winnipeg’s search for another NHL team, so Ford is trying to temper his excitement and any talk about what lies ahead. After all, there wouldn’t be much need for a “Return the Jets” campaign if the Jets – or a team with another name – did return.

But Ford will say one thing about the interested ownership group.

“They’ve really got their ducks in a row,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum Assistant Sports Editor

Hayden Goethe at (701) 241-5558

or hgoethe@forumcomm.com