Keith Tkachuk played in Winnipeg from 1992 to their move to Phoenix in 1996. (Getty Images)
As the rumblings of an NHL return to Winnipeg grow louder, the excitement building in that city is almost palpable.
That’s fantastic, if not for the poor people of Atlanta or Phoenix, who may have no choice but to sit back helplessly and watch their team be plucked from their hometown and their hearts, then certainly for fans in Manitoba who went through the same misery back in 1996 when the Jets left for Arizona.
However, even if the Thrashers or Coyotes wind up relocating to Winnipeg by next season, the enthusiasm – OK, the outright rejoicing – may soon be tempered by a harsh realization: Simply having an NHL team doesn’t guarantee any city a good-to-great shot at enjoying a Stanley Cup championship parade.
For proof, look at those Atlanta and Phoenix teams as they’re presently constituted: The Thrashers have made the playoffs once in their 10-year history and still are seeking their first post-season win; the Coyotes haven’t done much better, qualifying for the playoffs six times in 13 years, but never making it out of the first round.
Both franchises have looked decent this year – Phoenix more so than Atlanta, which has plummeted through the standings after a strong start – but people in Winnipeg would not be getting the same type of Cup-ready squad that the lucky folks of Denver got when the Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1995.
But beyond the quality of the Thrashers and Yotes rosters, the league still has significant structural hurdles that a seventh Canadian franchise would not necessarily be able to clear every season.
For instance, the Canadian dollar is once again surging – some have projected it to rise as high as $1.08 U.S. this year – but what happens if the pendulum swings the opposite way and we return to a Canadian dollar worth 75 cents U.S.? Combined with the relative lack of corporate power in Winnipeg, a weak Canuck currency would hurt the Jets both as a business and on the ice.
To be fair, the NHL’s salary cap and revenue sharing program weren’t in place the last time the Jets existed and certainly would benefit a franchise that returned to Manitoba. As well, rumored ownership candidate David Thomson has amassed a billion-dollar fortune; if he is more Terry Pegula than Tom Golisano – in other words, if his passion for hockey outweighs his need to use the sport for profit – there is no reason to believe he wouldn’t be willing to battle through any and every financial storm.
Nevertheless, there are other impediments to a successful NHL return to Winnipeg. We’re already hearing a new round of moaning that NHLers wouldn’t want to play there unless contractually obligated. Edmonton and Buffalo have had to fight through a similar stigma each year and will continue to until they actually win a Cup.
And to a lesser degree, just being a Canadian team carries with it a fishbowl existence that rarely appeals to top-level NHL stars; it’s why the likes of Paul Kariya and Scott Niedermayer never came back to their homeland to play when they had the chance and why there’s virtually no shot Brad Richards will sign with the Maple Leafs if he becomes a free agent this summer.
Again, all this parade-raining won’t make any Winnipegger less jubilant if and when that town gets to host NHL hockey 41 nights a year.
It certainly seems more “when” than “if” these days, but so long as those people slobbering over the return of the Jets know they’re about to kick off the start of a tough, long slog and not celebrate the end of one, they should be well-equipped to deal with the days and years to come.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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