OTTAWA - Canadian billionaire David Thomson's love of hockey runs deep, but as a minority investor in the company in talks to buy the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers and move them to Winnipeg, he isn't one to put his passion for the game ahead of a smart business decision, a long-time friend says.
Wesley Wark, a University of Toronto professor who played hockey with Thomson when they were both students at Cambridge University, said his friend wouldn't buy a hockey team simply because he loves the game.
"He's never operated that way in terms of his business interests," Wark said Friday. "He's able somehow to draw that line."
The media-shy Thomson, 53, was not available for comment Friday.
Canada's richest man and the son of late media mogul Ken Thomson, he is chairman of media giant Thomson Reuters. Thomson also owns The Woodbridge Co. Ltd., the family's investment firm which holds a controlling interest in the global news and information company.
Woodbridge also owns an 85 per cent stake in the Globe and Mail newspaper, of which Thomson is also chairman.
But Wark noted that despite Thomson's riches—his family has a net worth of about $23 billion—"he's not somebody who because he can buy it, would buy it," Wark said.
"David is his own man, he's not just a product of the DNA of his father or his mother, but he has that same sense of separating the private from the public and being very disciplined about his investments," he said.
True North Sports and Entertainment, the would-be buyer of the Thrashers, was founded by chairman Mark Chipman to build the MTS Centre and own the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Chipman declined to comment Friday and True North said only that a deal on the Atlanta Thrashers had yet to be signed.
Chipman is president and chief executive of Winnipeg-based Megill Stephenson Co. Ltd. and director of the Hockey Canada Foundation.
Megill Stephenson, a private company, owns Birchwood Automotive Group, Manitoba's largest auto dealership, as well as real estate investments.
Opened in 2004 with the Moose, the farm team for the NHL's Vancouver Canucks, as its anchor tenant, the 15,000-seat MTS Centre cost $133.5 million to build, including $40.5 million in public money.
The Thomson family once owned the Winnipeg Free Press, which was part of a former newspaper empire of mainly small publications that stretched across North America but was sold yeas ago.
But Thomson's interest in True North comes from his commercial real estate investment firm Osmington, which owned the land on which the MTS Centre is built in Winnipeg.
Instead of selling the land to the company to build the rink, Osmington took a minority stake in the True North.
Norm O'Reilly, a sports business professor at the University of Ottawa, suggested that Winnipeg will be a difficult market for a team in the long term, especially if the Canadian dollar weakens again.
O'Reilly pointed to Winnipeg's smaller size and fewer big corporate head offices compared with Edmonton, currently the league's smallest market, as challenges for any franchise to make a go of it in the Manitoba capital.
"These are very shrewd and successful businesspeople and they're not used to losing money," O'Reilly said of the typical NHL owner.
But, he noted, True North also has some advantages with a growing Canadian and local economy.
"Winnipeg would really benefit from the optics and the branding of having a team come back," O'Reilly said. "They could break even."