What if ... the NHL returned to Winnipeg?

If the NHL's financial future is so bleak, it should consider a new start in places like Winnipeg and Quebec City.

Updated: November 5, 2003, 2:20 PM ET
By Adam Proteau | The Hockey News

Like a poor man standing outside a brothel or the guy who was off sick while his co-workers were splitting the cost of what turned out to be the winning Powerball lottery ticket, this column is filled with a lot of "what ifs." But when the "what ifs" might culminate in the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg and Quebec City, we think it's worth the stretch.

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Yes, the NHL could conceivably return to the two towns it abandoned almost 10 years ago. Yes, we're serious. And yes, we would pass a breathalyzer test as we're writing this. For if the owners are to be believed regarding the league's bleak financial future (and that's undoubtedly the biggest "what if" in our entire theory) it's not so far-fetched to picture a day when the National Hockey League restores its place in cities defaced by the crass bully that is capitalism. That is, if the league and its players aren't too blind to realize it.

Here's the deal: Let's assume NHLPA supremo Bob Goodenow's recent prediction the labor showdown brewing between the league and the players' union will result in 20 months of NHL-free sportscasts (an estimate also made by incoming WHA commissioner Bobby Hull in a similar statement) is correct. Let's then assume what many already do­ that such a shutdown would kill off interest in --­ not to mention the financial viability of --­ almost one-sixth of the league's teams.

Now let's imagine what would happen if the league followed through on its pre-lockout rhetoric and put together a collective bargaining agreement that saves its small-market teams from extinction. With that kind of system in place ­-- and with American fan interest eroded to a dangerous low ­-- we would pose two questions.

First of all, why not attempt to re-establish a presence in towns where hockey fanaticism is built in, rather than clumsily trying to glue the shattered fragments of mediocre, southern U.S. fan bases? Furthermore, if a new CBA effectively recasts the league as a gate-driven industry, doesn't it make sense to return to markets that, given a system that distributes on-ice talent as equally as possible, will heartily support the product, as opposed to re-investing in cities that obviously prefer NASCAR pre-race shows and the World Series of Upside-Down Cheerleading to the NHL?

Now, moving teams back to Canada undoubtedly would present a new set of challenges for both the owners and the players, but the alternative seems much more hurtful to the future of the game. That's because the alternative is watching teams like Carolina, Nashville, Pittsburgh and Florida take the big dirt nap, their belongings sold off to the first available creditor, their players redistributed in a contraction draft. Not the ideal image to a commissioner looking to nail down a lucrative, long-term national TV contract, nor the best re-election platform for a union boss charged with saving as many member jobs as possible.

Indeed, owners and players alike have to be worried about announced crowds of just over 12,000 in Tennessee and North Carolina. And when one of the greatest players in the history of hockey can't persuade Pittsburgh residents to replace the NHL's oldest arena, when Miami residents would rather watch P. Diddy train for the Iditarod than shell out for a Panthers ticket, there is legitimate cause for concern.

And before we go any further, a brief plea: Let's resist the urge to smash down on the "send" button so that some otherwise innocent typist's e-mail address ­-- say, for example, aproteau@thehockeynews.com --­ might be deluged with a crippling torrent of civic pride-related invective. We don't doubt there are tens of thousands of hockey loyalists in all of the markets we've tagged as susceptible to a work stoppage. We know there are folks in those zip codes who believe the game can thrive again. And although it certainly isn't fair that a changing financial reality can rob a community of a valued commodity, it happens. Ask the folks up north how they managed to cope.

Think about it ­-- four insolvent teams with 23 players apiece equals 92 former NHLers. That won't mean much to the Jaromir Jagrs and Peter Forsbergs of the league, but it will directly affect the livelihoods of the muckers, grinders and fourth-liners, the guys who don't drive Hummers and talk in the third person. For them, it will mean a return to riding the buses in the minor leagues, leaner paychecks to cash and lesser stages to perform on. Not the ideal manner by which every pro expects his career to end.

Just because teams such as Calgary and Edmonton managed to hang on longer than the Nordiques and Jets doesn't mean Quebec City and Winnipeg residents shouldn't get the same second chance at hosting a successful hockey club, both on and off the ice. They've lived without the NHL for coming up on a decade, but the proper amount of government assistance, coupled with a renewed commitment by the league to the future of Canadian hockey, certainly could help clear any operational hurdles the relocated teams might encounter.

This isn't just a call to arms for the league and players union. This is also a heads-up to the people of Quebec City and Winnipeg. A well-prepared potential ownership group in each city, ready to swoop in and reclaim what once was theirs, would comprise half the battle. The NHL would have to be reasonably secure that they wouldn't be removing one "for sale" sign simply to erect another somewhere else.

But the opportunity to alter the course of the league rarely has been greater. With North America's economy far from the glory days of the early '90s, there will be no more American knights galloping in to relocate the derelict damsels of the NHL in their time of need. From here on, it's every team for itself. And the same towns that were sneered at as being too podunk, too small-pond for the big fish to swim in, could very easily hold the solution the league has been searching for in trying to save some of its cattle from the slaughterhouse.

So fret not, all you worrywarts and nervous nellies out there. A prolonged labor battle might change the face of the NHL, but with the proper dosage of leadership and vision, the game might be pushed closer to its roots than we'd have thought possible 10 years ago.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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