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Fans of Winnipeg's NHL team will pay second-highest prices in Canada

Winnipeg hockey supporters rally at The Forks in Winnipeg, Tuesday May 31, 2011 after the announcement that an NHL team will be returning to the city after 15 years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Lipnowski

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Winnipeg hockey supporters rally at The Forks in Winnipeg, Tuesday May 31, 2011 after the announcement that an NHL team will be returning to the city after 15 years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Lipnowski

Fans of Winnipeg's new NHL franchise are being asked to pay a higher price for tickets on average than all but one existing Canadian team.

True North Sports and Entertainment will open a pre-sale on season packages at 2 p.m. ET Wednesday. Ticket-holders and corporate partners of the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose will be given the first chance to buy seats before they're opened to the general public on Saturday.

Seats at the MTS Centre will be priced over seven different tiers at an average of $82—the same price Montreal Canadiens fans paid last year at the Bell Centre and behind only the Toronto Maple Leafs ($114 average) in Canada, according to the most recent franchise valuations by Forbes.

The new Winnipeg owners are hoping to get commitments for 13,000 season seats before the NHL board of governors meet June 21 to vote on the sale of the team.

"This success of the drive to 13,000 will ensure the long-term viability of a NHL team in Winnipeg and will allow our fans to showcase their support," said True North president and CEO Jim Ludlow.

The company considered a number of different pricing plans before deciding on the one it unveiled Tuesday. Tickets will range between $39 and $129.

One reason the average price is higher than other Canadian markets is because the 15,015-seat MTS Centre will be the smallest in the entire NHL.

"A pricing exercise in any given marketplace necessitates the balancing of a number of market-specific variables," said Ludlow. "Arriving at what we believe to be the seven ideal price categories in the MTS Centre required a careful review of a number of key variables, including our market size and capacity, our building size, team operating costs, Canadian market comparables and our history with existing hockey customers."

Ottawa ($56), Edmonton ($60), Calgary ($60) and Vancouver ($65) all had lower average ticket prices this season than what Winnipeggers are being asked to pay.

True North launched the website www.driveto13.com to chart the progress of ticket sales. Fans wanting the most expensive season tickets will have to commit for five years while those looking for the cheaper seats must sign up for a three-year term.

The landscape for the Winnipeg team is much better than it was when the Jets left in 1996, with a strong Canadian dollar and the new arena. Since Mark Chipman and David Thomson own the MTS Centre, they can make money from everything from popcorn to tickets for other events such as concerts.

"You've got a lot more sources of revenues than the old ownership had," said Rob Warren, who teaches at the University of Manitoba's business school.

But Warren adds there are hurdles, such as keeping the seats filled every year.

"Right now, there's huge excitement in terms of the NHL returning to Winnipeg and I don't see any problem for the first three to five years," he said.

"But Winnipeggers, whether it's hockey, football or baseball, you can track the attendance of the games fairly tightly with the team's performance."

"We're not Maple Leaf fans," he chuckled.

There are also concerns that a rebound in the U.S. dollar could make salaries too expensive. If the Canadian dollars sinks back to 62 cents U.S. as it did in the mid-1990s, it could add tens of millions of dollars to a team's payroll.

"If five years from now, the new team hasn't made the playoffs and we see a drop in the Canadian dollar ... it might put more pressure on the team and the franchise to stay viable," said Dan Mason, a professor at the University of Alberta's business school who specializes in sport management.

"But right now, absolutely, I think Winnipeg is a great hockey market."

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With files from Steve Lambert in Winnipeg.

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