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What if ... the NHL returned to Winnipeg?

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.

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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