Winnipeg’s new NHL team faces economic realities

The NHL is returning to Winnipeg with a hefty price tag attached
to the franchise.

There was no glossing over the harsh financial reality of
operating a team in the league when the sale and relocation of the
Atlanta Thrashers was announced on Tuesday.

Not only did True North Sports and Entertainment spend a
significant amount of time detailing the price of tickets, but NHL
commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear that every one of them
better be sold next season.

”It isn’t going to work very well unless this building is sold
out every night,” Bettman said.

The 15,015-seat MTS Centre will be the smallest arena in the
NHL, and Winnipeg re-enters the league at a time when it has never
been more expensive to do business.

The salary cap is expected to climb for a sixth straight season
in 2011-12 and could reach more than $62 million. If that happens,
every team would have to spend at least $46 million.

The Thrashers have $35.9 million tied up in 15 players for next
season. There are seven pending restricted free agents – including
captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Zach Bogosian – and another
three players eligible for unrestricted free agency.

All told, the payroll could exceed $50 million.

Decisions must also be made about the entire hockey operations
staff, including general manager Rick Dudley. He signed a four-year
contract extension in January but won’t necessarily make the move
north.

”We have got a lot of work to do,” said Winnipeg co-owner Mark
Chipman. ”I have a very high regard for Rick, (but) haven’t spoken
to him and expect to do so very shortly.”

Thrashers president Don Waddell, who has been with the franchise
since its creation and was the longtime general manager, said he
won’t be moving to Winnipeg. He also said that True North planned
to interview members of the organization before deciding who will
make the move.

Craig Heisinger, general manager of the minor-league Manitoba
Moose that also are owned by True North, has already been promised
a position with the NHL team.

”He will have a very significant role in our hockey
operations,” Chipman said. ”Exactly which title and which role,
we’ve been kicking around for a couple of weeks as this became
real. But we owe it to Rick Dudley and the rest of that
organization to get (talking) with them as quickly as possible
because they’re people with families and expectations.”

In the meantime, True North is asking fans to open their wallets
and show support for the new franchise. Tickets will range in price
from $39 to $129. The new owners hope to attract commitments for
13,000 season seats before the NHL’s board of governors meets on
June 21 to vote on the transfer of ownership and relocation.

Moose fans will get first dibs on season tickets.

True North plans to keep its American Hockey League team, but
will move the Moose to another city. It appeared they might be
heading to St. John’s, but the Newfoundland government rejected a
request for a $500,000 annual subsidy.

The Moose have been one of the AHL’s most successful franchises,
averaging 8,404 fans this past season to rank second in the 30-team
league. They also had the reputation of being run like an NHL
club.

”Everybody that has played for the Moose has enjoyed their
time,” said Nolan Baumgartner, the team captain. ”It’s the best
organization that I’ve ever played for in the minor leagues.”