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.”