That’s it, back to Winnipeg

May 31, 2011 will be remembered by Winnipeg hockey fans as one of the greatest days in the city’s history.

As members of the Canadian sports media congregated at 300 Portage Avenue on that windy Winnipeg morning, thousands of Winnipeggers converged at The Forks and Portage and Main in exuberant anticipation. At the press conference, held near ice-level of the MTS Centre, True North chairman Mark Chipman took to the podium to announce that a deal had been reached between True North Sports and Entertainment and the owners of the Atlanta Thrashers, Atlanta Spirit Group, to move the NHL franchise to Winnipeg.

After enduring 15 years of regret and despair when the Winnipeg Jets left our small prairie market for the deserts of Arizona, the announcement was a long time coming for Winnipeg hockey fans. A planned celebration at The Forks brought out thousands of Jets-clad partiers, despite the miserable weather conditions.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also managed to dampen Winnipeg’s spirits, albeit temporarily, when he commented that “selling 13,000 season tickets is the best message to send to the board of governors [ . . . ]. To be candid, this isn’t going to work very well unless [the MTS Centre] is sold out every night.” The sticky matter of financial support for the NHL has been a consistent theme for those who refused to believe that the NHL could be viable in Winnipeg. Given the circumstances surrounding the Jets departure, how could Winnipeggers afford to pay an average of $82 for one game ticket?

But anyone who doubted True North’s vision and planning were silenced when the “Drive to 13” season ticket campaign kicked off. Buying season tickets required signing on to a multi-year commitment, with payment plans available to keep the ticket packages affordable. Starting the very next day at noon, season tickets would be available for long-time Manitoba Moose season ticket holders and corporate sponsors only. The general public were forced to impatiently wait until all Moose ticket package owners got the first crack.

With just over 15,000 seats available at the MTS Centre, broken up into seven different pricing levels — starting as low as $39 per game — True North had the hottest ticket in town. By the end of the first day of pre-sale, 1,870 tickets had been sold. Twenty-four hours later, the number had more than doubled, and by Friday, the last day of the pre-sale, more than 7,000 of the available season tickets were gone.

When the remaining tickets went on sale at noon, they sold out in less than 17 minutes. Thousands of fans who missed out paid to be placed on a season ticket waiting list, which True North capped at 8,000.

According to Ticketmaster, there were nearly 250,000 attempts to purchase tickets between noon and 1 p.m. Although that figure does not equate to 250,000 individual customers, it still vindicates the careful planning and preparation True North achieved throughout the lengthy process of acquiring an NHL team. While running a very successful AHL team, Mark Chipman and True North kept in constant communication with the NHL, working quietly behind the scenes for years. Speaking at a recent Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Chipman even revealed that True North “literally came within 10 minutes of acquiring [the Phoenix Coyotes]” in May of last year, with the franchise only being saved from relocation after the City of Glendale agreed to pay the NHL $25 million to keep the team from leaving.

For those who recognized the astute businesspeople working on behalf of Winnipeg hockey fans at True North, and realized the NHL’s return was only a matter of time, it may still feel like a dream. Despite years of being ridiculed and mocked by naysayers and pessimists who failed to see the bigger picture, the community of passionate believers stayed steadfast and proud, and now reaps the benefits of a mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, there may never be enough crow to go around for all those who refused to believe in a dream that seemed unimaginable 15 years ago.