Friday, July 15, 2011

Dirty Little Secrets

Anyone who has been following the Jets return to Winnipeg for any length of time knows that back room deals and conspiracy theories where at one time part of everyday life for a Jets fan. I’m pretty sure there are a good number of us that could probably pass the Arizona state bar exam with our knowledge of Arizona constitutional law. An even greater number of us could probably lecture Ed Beasley on Glendale municipal procedure.  The road to getting this team has a secret history that is quickly fading into urban legend. The official version that Mr. Chipman offered us (and he didn’t have to) tied everything up in a neat little bow, and answered most lingering questions. There are however a couple loose ends that don’t jive with the official story.

Now even I am not the complete expert on every nuance of what it took to land the Jets, I will however try and piece together some of things that still don’t quite add up. Let’s rewind to Christmas 2010, this is when Atlanta really came into play. Phoenix council had just approved Matt Hulsizers lease agreement and the NHL seemed happy to trot him around as the poster boy white knight for hockey in Arizona. The Goldwater Institute was still just some backwater think tank that was rattling the sabre. It was a low point for many, we had come so close and now it seemed we were back at square 1.

It was at this time that Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution shed a little light on what was really happening. He first reported that the Atlanta Spirit Group had resolved their partnership battle, and secondly that they were about to sue their former attorneys.  In the statement of claim for that suit it was revealed that ASG had been shopping the Atlanta Thrashers for at least five years and it hinted that they had turned their sites to investors that wanted to move the club away from Atlanta. This is the first hint that the NHL/TNSE had at least started the conversation with ASG .

As we headed into February it was becoming clear that the bonds that where needed to support the deal in Phoenix where in danger of not being sold because of the efforts of the Goldwater Institute. It’s at this time the Michael Gearon, one of the ASG’s primary investors lashed out in an interview with the AJC. It was clear that he was not happy that Winnipeg might indeed end up fixing the NHLs problem in Phoenix leaving him holding the bag in Atlanta.

My sources at the time told me that March 1 was a very important date for Glendale. The NHL through its own legal analysis of the Goldwater constitutional case came to the conclusion that GWI might be successful, and if they sued the NHL would need to pull out. Likely several institutional Bond investors came to the same conclusions and passed on the municipal bonds.  On March 1 the NHL demanded the 25 million dollar backstop for next season, and got a verbal agreement to that affect from Glendale officials.  The rest of the posturing was final attempts to sell bonds, even though most knew this was a futile gesture. This is the time that many believe the NHL gave the green light to ASG and TNSE to start their discussions in earnest, although it has been suggested that preliminary talks may have started even earlier.

Arpril saw much sabre rattling from the GWI resulting in the famous cupcake summit. However a small rumour leaked out mid April that didn’t get very much play in the mainstream media, although several credible sources confirmed it.  The NHL rookie tournament, held every year and featuring prospects from selected teams had Winnipeg added to a schedule that included other NHL teams from the west. It was clear that the NHL was planning on Winnipeg being a member of the club sooner rather than later.

May saw Glendale city council officially approve the NHL’s 25 million dollar demand to manage the Coyotes and Arena into 2012. The official story states this is when negotiations between ASG and TNSE  began although they had been quietly going on for some time. On May 19th something very interesting happened. Depending on who you talk to negotiations were being stalled by either the NHL demanding more in relocation fees or by minority ASG partners who were still insisting on local ownership. My feel is it was the latter. In any event Stephen Brunt came out with his now famous pre-emptive story announcing TNSE had finalize a deal to buy the Thrashers, which was leaked to him most likely through the Thompson group intentionally. This was a hardball move meant to shock the other side into action, and it worked!  Despite desperate denials from the NHL , the cat was now at least semi-officially out of the bag. The NHL and all parties involved now needed desperately to get this deal done as the repercussions would be almost unthinkable if they didn’t. Finally on May 31st, after an all night 11th hour negotiating session, TNSE called a press conference to announce the deal had been done.

With the whole story now behind us, it really doesn’t matter how we got here, in the end it will matter what we do with the team going forward. It’s up to the fans and the management to make something great, and change the landscape of professional hockey in North America in the process. With the response from both fans and management it looks like the Jets are well on their way to doing just that.

 I recently discussed the rookie camp rumour with a fellow Jets war veteran on twitter. I lamented how the rumour didn`t jive with the official time line, his reply was:  “Ya those are the dirty little secrets”.

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