Winnipeg’s Hockey White Knight: Mark Chipman

In April of 1996, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba lost the NHL team that meant the world to the people of this small Canadian city. As the Jets took flight to Phoenix and were rebranded the Coyotes, Winnipeg was left hockey-less, an enormous void in the community. Enter Mark Chipman, a man who was key in the effort to try and keep the Jets in Winnipeg now emerged as a white knight to save professional hockey in Manitoba.

Manitoba Moose

For the 1996/97 season, Chipman was part of a team that brought the IHL (International Hockey League) to Winnipeg. The newly formed Manitoba Moose struggled early on, but soon would become a competitive franchise in the league up until the IHL closed it’s doors in 2001. Again Chipman played the hero as he was instrumental in the deal that moved 6 IHL franchises, including the Moose, in to the American Hockey League. Now a farm team to the Vancouver Canucks, the Moose flourished as one of the top organizations in the league. Eventually, ownership transferred to Chipman’s newest venture, the group who built the MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg, True North Sports and Entertainment. It was all part of a calculated plan by Chipman and company to eventually bring back the NHL to Manitoba’s capital.

Return of the Winnipeg Jets

All this work was enough to impress NHL officials and convince them that Winnipeg was indeed ready for a return to the NHL. True North Sports and Entertainment was long rumored as potential buyers of the struggling Phoenix Coyotes. However, after that deal fell through and seemed to drag on year after year, the Winnipeg company surprisingly acquired the Atlanta Thrashers in the summer of 2011. The city that had been without and NHL team for so long was now back in the game. Season tickets sold out in seconds, and have continued to be nearly unattainable. The atmosphere and the experience has been one of the best in the league.

The Jets and their fans reached a whole other level when they made the playoffs this season. Though they only lasted four games against the Western Conference Champion Anaheim Ducks, it was a sight to see. Noise levels were nearly unprecedented for a hockey game, and the return of the Whiteout was a massive success. Going into the summer, Jets fans were feeling pretty good about themselves. They had far exceeded expectations for this past season, new renovations were coming to their building and they had even been predicted by The Hockey News to be only a few years away from a Stanley Cup Championship. It seemed like the life of a Winnipeg hockey fan couldn’t get much better. Then came another True North announcement.

Two Teams in Winnipeg?

On May 4th, at the MTS Centre, an announcement was made that surprised many people, the AHL was returning to Winnipeg. The Manitoba Capital would join only a few other cities in recent history to try and host two professional hockey teams at the same time. Last season the only city that could make that claim was Toronto, with the Marlies and of course the Leafs. Given the size of that region and the amount of hockey fans in the area, Toronto has no problem supporting both teams.

It’s been no secret that since re-entering the league, Winnipeg wanted their AHL franchise to be geographically closer. St. John’s had been the home of Jets prospects since Winnipeg’s return to the league. Though the team has enjoyed success and huge crowds, the business end of the relationship never really made sense. Scouting trips were made harder, and roster moves between the clubs were inconvenient at best. There were many rumors as to where the Jets could relocate their farm team. Some said Saskatchewan while Thunder Bay was often mentioned, but when the Winnipeg announcement was made, people were caught off guard. Yet, it made sense, if there is a fan group that can support it, and it appears Winnipeg can, why not double up?

Winnipeg fans have been through a lot over the past 20 years. They have gone from no professional hockey teams when the Jets left in 1996, to two teams after the announcement this May. Through all the good times and bad, Chipman has been there for the city, fighting for its people, and now, he has brought hockey to the city of Winnipeg like few cities have ever experienced. Will two teams work in a city with just over 700,000 citizens? That is yet to be seen, but it is safe to say professional hockey is now in Winnipeg to stay.