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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

NHL Beware! ~ The "Winnipeg Curse"

Winnipeg Jets is not the only Winnipeg professional
hockey team to suffer an injustice from the NHL
You are wondering what is the "Winnipeg Curse" and why the NHL should be wary of it?  Like most people, you remember the Winnipeg Jets NHL franchise moving to Phoenix in 1996 to operate as the Phoenix Coyotes.  They did it to make the franchise more financially viable.

You might even see the irony in the franchise's current financial state and ownership struggles.  Perhaps, this is just another example of the "Hockey Gods" meting out justice.  However, you probably never gave any thought to the possibility of a "Winnipeg Curse".

The Winnipeg Jets are not the first professional hockey franchise to leave Winnipeg.  In fact, it is the second one to have done it.  The first one was the Winnipeg Warriors, a minor "professional" team in the WHL (Western Hockey League).  They started in 1955 and by 1961 relocated to San Francisco to operate as the San Francisco Seals and then in 1966 as the California Seals in Oakland.

This team was the genesis of the San Francisco - Oakland franchise.  The first failed NHL expansion franchise.  After entering the NHL in 1967-68 as the California Seals, it went through several iterations Oakland Seals, back to the California Golden Seals, California Seals, and eventually disbanded in June 1978 as Cleveland Barons.

After ceasing operations of the Cleveland Barons, the NHL transferred the rights of the team's players to Minnesota North Stars and had Cleveland's owner, Gordon Gund, assume ownership of the Minnesota franchise.  In 1991, Minnesota changed ownership and, in 1993, transferred to Dallas to operate as the Dallas Stars.

As you can see, we have one NHL franchise failure and two others, Phoenix and Dallas, with their ownership in limbo, all having roots in professional hockey taken away from Winnipeg.

But, are a series of coincidental misfortunes enough to declare a curse?  Where is the injustice that gives reason for this curse?

Some tell you Winnipeg never deserved professional hockey because it is too small.  They do their best to convince you Winnipeg is naturally forsaken.  Sometimes, they resort to belittling the city, its weather, and its people.

Many people can attest to the unfairness involved with losing the Winnipeg Jets.  What can we say about the Winnipeg Warriors?

1955-56 was the inaugural season and an immediate success for both the WHL Winnipeg Warriors and the Winnipeg Arena.  The Warriors won both Lester Patrick Cup (WHL Champions) and Edinburgh Cup (Championship over all Minor Professional hockey).  John Perrin, one of the wealthiest men in Canada, owned the team while his son Jack Perrin Jr. operated it.  John Perrin acquired his wealth as the founder of The San Antonio Gold Mines.  It was the most financially successful gold mine between the Rockies and the Great Lakes.

The Perrins also owned St. Boniface Canadiens, one of the best junior franchises at the time.  They were the 1953 Memorial Cup finalists who lost to Barrie Flyers (Don Cherry's team).  The team had several of the best prospects in hockey: Ab McDonald, Bill Masterton, and Jerry Wilson.  They also owned a second junior team, the Winnipeg Braves who went on to be the 1959 Memorial Cup champions.

The Winnipeg Arena, owned by the City of Winnipeg, was the largest hockey facility west of Chicago.  Although its 9,500 seating capacity paled in comparison to 16,666 for Chicago Stadium (NHL's largest in 1955-56), it was close to 11,563 for Detroit Olympia and 11,900 for Boston Garden.  On 18th of October, 9,671 people attended the first WHL game ever in Winnipeg.  In contrast, the NHL had 10,111 people attend its all-star game in Detroit on 2nd of October.

We can go on and on and bore you with the details of success for the Winnipeg franchise.  But, it keeps us from the question of "what went wrong?".

In short, their relationship soured with their NHL affiliates: Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.  Montreal and Toronto entered into an affiliation agreement with the Perrins (Winnipeg Warriors) in order to get rights to the junior prospects on St. Boniface Canadiens and Winnipeg Braves.  The agreement affiliated the junior teams to Montreal and Toronto by virtue of their affiliations with Winnipeg Warriors.  In return for the junior affiliations, Montreal and Toronto committed to providing a certain number of professional players.

Once Montreal and Toronto had their junior prospects, they lost interest in providing players.  As a result, Winnipeg become uncompetitive and attendance suffered.  The emergence of Hockey Night in Canada on television compounded this problem even further.

While dealing with the affiliation dispute, Jack Perrin tried to advocate a bigger picture involving revenue growth through television.  He proposed starting a Western division of six teams in the NHL with the purpose of growing television revenue in the US and television revenue sharing amongst all 12 teams.  Jack Perrin also advocated changing from the current junior sponsorship system to a more equitable way of distributing/sharing junior prospects within professional hockey.

Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs did not want to share Hockey Night in Canada revenues with other teams.  Shockingly, the NHL was not interested in growing its US television revenues.  They were afraid giving their players higher profiles through television would cause salaries to rise out of control.  They let their CBS television contract expire in 1960.

In the end, the Perrins ended up taking Montreal and Toronto to court over the matter.  They won the case.  But lost the battle.  They sold the Winnipeg Warriors in 1961 which was then moved to San Francisco.  The Perrins also sold their two junior hockey teams: St. Boniface Candiens and Winnipeg Braves.  Ben Hatskin ended up owning the two junior teams.

Ironically, NHL ended up doing a new television deal in 1963 with CBS.  CBS understood there was an intention to add two NHL teams in California.  Otherwise, CBS would have done a TV deal with WHL.  There was a proposal to add the teams for the 1964-65 season.  But, nothing materialized.

By 1965, CBS gave NHL an ultimatum.  The NHL complied by announcing the addition of six new teams in a Western division.  It declared San Francisco and Vancouver to be acceptable franchise cities and Los Angeles and St. Louis to be potential cities.  NHL decided by 1966 to add Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Los Angeles, and San Francisco - Oakland to a new "Western" conference for the 1967-68 season.  NHL rejected both Vancouver and Winnipeg (represented by Ben Hatskin).

Another irony was the scrapping of the junior sponsorship system.  It was forced upon NHL in 1966 by Bill Hunter, owner of Edmonton Oil Kings junior team forced it upon the NHL in 1966 when he refused to affiliate his Memorial Cup championship team with the NHL.  Instead, he helped start an outlaw junior hockey league.  It was CMJHL (Canadian Major Junior Hockey League).  You now know it as WHL (Western Hockey League).  As a result, NHL reverted to the Amateur Draft as the primary way of assigning NHL team rights to junior plays.  Initially, NHL even permitted minor-professional franchises to participate in the Amateur Draft.  Coincidently, Ben Hatskin entered a junior franchise the following year into this outlaw junior league.  He named the team Winnipeg Jets.

In spite of its unwillingness, NHL put in place almost everything advocated by Winnipeg's Jack Perrin.  However, NHL left Winnipeg (along with Vancouver) out in the cold when it came to NHL hockey, a great injustice.

In 1972, another outlaw league came into existence to challenge the NHL.  It was WHA (World Hockey Association).  Ben Hatskin and Bill Hunter entered franchises into the WHA: Winnipeg Jets and Alberta Oilers (now known as Edmonton Oilers).  By 1979, NHL allowed them along with Quebec Nordiques and New England Whalers into the league.

Again, the NHL did it unwillingly.  They initially rejected the WHA bid.  However, a beer drinker strike/protest erupted against Molson Breweries forcing the NHL to reconsider.  One of the greatest moments in beer drinker history.  However, Winnipeg Jets eventual fate is familiar to everyone.  In 1996, the franchise transferred to Phoenix.

Interestingly, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, the perceived villain in the loss of Winnipeg's franchise, is the man who put in place the last element of Jack Perrin's advocacy for professional hockey fairness and prosperity.  It is the equitable distribution of Hockey Night in Canada revenue.  However, he did it after Winnipeg lost its franchise.

Perhaps, to end this "Winnipeg Curse" and bring financial stability back to the NHL, Gary Bettman needs to reconsider placing an NHL franchise in Winnipeg.  The factors for revenue success advocated by Jack Perrin are fully in place.  

This includes arena ownership.  MTS Centre has replaced Winnipeg Arena and True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd owns it.    Although MTS Centre is no bigger than Winnipeg Arena during its NHL years, True North Sports keeps all of the revenue generated by the facilities.  Everything is in Winnipeg's favour.  Now, it is time for NHL to correct an injustice.  Otherwise, it might be time to unleash the wrath of the beer drinkers.

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