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Hockey Notes

It’s hard to see Winnipeg as a winning move

By Kevin Paul Dupont
May 22, 2011

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NHL headquarters has yet to confirm it’s a done deal, but rumors, wisdom, and prima facie evidence all point to the Atlanta Thrashers packing up perhaps as early as Tuesday and taking their talents to Winnipeg. (Note to NHL: Maybe consult with LeBron James next time on how to market these big shifts.)

Deep South swapped for Far North, Part 2. Atlanta hockey fans have seen this movie before, when their beloved Flames up and left in the summer of 1980 to do business as the Calgary Flames.

Once again, it looks as though Atlanta has played NHL franchise incubator, so ex-Bruins Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler, swapped to Atlanta at the March trade deadline, won’t be needing all those sandals and T-shirts after all. It’s not really a culture shock for those two strapping lads, because they grew up in Minnesota, which many Canadians consider the south end of Manitoba — something that really cheeses off all eight citizens of neighboring North Dakota.

On the heels of the Thrashers-to-go rumors, there was added speculation by the end of the week that Teemu Selanne, who made his NHL debut with the Jets in 1992, will head back to Winnipeg for a welcome-back-to-the-future farewell twirl. What next, Michael J. Fox as general manager?

Let’s see now, the multimillionaire Finn, who has spent the last 14-plus seasons playing for Anaheim, San Jose, and Colorado, returns to one of the coldest places on earth to continue his career at age 41. As they say back in Finlandia, Teemu, did the heat get to you?

Some 20 years after Selanne’s arrival in Winnipeg, the city’s population has increased by about 10 percent and today is pushing 700,000. These are not just people who are banking on global warming. Contrary to the view of most Americans, and even a lot of Canadians, there are good things happening in southern Manitoba, and one is that it has a ready-for-the-NHL arena sitting there waiting to be designated an Original 30 rink.

Now, is a shift back in time to Winnipeg really where the NHL needs to go? That’s a very large, mixed bag of pucks.

Commissioner Gary Bettman, like Selanne, entered the league as a rookie in 1992-93 (February 1993, to be precise), and he’s the guy, more than anyone, who pushed for the broadening of the game’s “broadcast envelope.’’ It was a 24-team league when Bettman arrived, and three of those clubs were WHA orphans Winnipeg, Hartford, and Quebec.

Some 48 months after Bettman’s arrival, all three would be shipped elsewhere — the Nordiques to Denver in 1995, the Jets to Phoenix in 1996, and the Whale to Raleigh, N.C., in 1997. It wasn’t so much grand design as it was fiscal reality. As Bettman noted recently on his weekly radio show, the Jets left Winnipeg and the Nordiques left Quebec because no one wanted to own an NHL team in those cities anymore.

That’s slightly different than saying no one in those cities wanted to own a team; they just didn’t want to own a team there. Ex-NHL draft pick Tom Glavine, proud son of Billerica and an Atlanta Braves icon, would like to own the Thrashers in Atlanta, but he has not been successful in persuading enough people to share that dream with him. Ergo, Winnipeg Ho!

It has taken nearly 20 years for Bettman’s grandiose broadcast plan to bear fruit, but to his credit, the recent landmark deal he signed with NBC/Versus has validated the idea of spreading the game throughout nontraditional US hockey markets. There remain troubling defects in that mosaic — Phoenix and Sunrise, Fla., perhaps even Nashville and Raleigh — but the NBC/Versus/Comcast deal has scored the league buckets of money and provided an uber-platform for what could be tremendous growth.

Yes, such things remain possible even without that satiny ESPN logo stitched into the mattress.

It is somewhat ironic at this self-confirming moment that Winnipeg pokes its red, frozen nose into the scrum. For every Canadian, there are about 10 Americans. For every Winnipeger, there are about 440 Americans. But before we get too carried away with that red-white-and-blue chest-beating, let’s note that the Winnipeg population is equal to that of the US city whose mayor is one Tom Menino. Body for body, Winnipeg is the Hub of Hockey’s sistah city. Boston just has a lot more folks, industries, and wealth surrounding the core 700,000. Winnipeg has a whole lot of snow and timber and polar bears (look it up: Churchill, Manitoba).

The key difference is the population surrounding Winnipeg, which amounts to roughly 500,000 spread across about 250,000 square miles (see: Texas) for a total of approximately 1.2 million. Here in the great state of Massachusetts, the Bruins, discounting a couple of whacked-out Rangers fans, can draw from 6.5 million Bay Staters packed into only 10,500 square miles.

All of which is to say that Manitoba has the kind of open space and passing lanes that could turn even Dennis Wideman into a Norris Trophy candidate. If the NHL is going to land there again, the initial pop will be enthralling, intoxicating. Returning an NHL team to that bit of Canadian soil would be like bringing Paragon Park back to Hull. Initially, everyone and his cousin would rush to the rink.

Until the L’s piled up.

Until Winnipegers realized the sticker shock of $120 lower-bowl seats and $250 suite seats (extra for the handwarmers).

Until American TV interests made it clear that they would prefer to air senior women’s bocce tournaments out of Biloxi to anything happening in Winnipeg. Shortsighted, perhaps, but there is a reason TV is referred to as the small screen.

For all Winnipeg has to offer, in terms of city size and sheer love for everything connected to the vulcanized rubber and carbon stick industry, it remains a real stretch for big-time hockey.

For who they are, and how they love the game, Winnipegers deserve the NHL. But we could say the same thing of many Canadian cities. No one doubts their passion, and compared with the way Atlantans embraced the sport, Winnipeg looks like the ultimate seductress.

But is there really a there there for the NHL? I don’t think so. It may be a better alternative than Atlanta or Phoenix or even Sunrise, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most prudent answer. It’s really nothing more than a safe harbor with very shallow waters, and Bettman, commander of the ship, would be wise now to blast his horn, offer a respectful salute, and steer the S.S. NHL to a richer, more promising port.

THE BOOGAARD CASE
Did trauma contribute? No matter what the autopsy findings, we knew the underlying reason for Derek Boogaard’s death would be sad, and we learned Friday that the Hennepin County (Minn.) Medical Examiner’s office determined that the hulking winger died of accidental alcohol-oxycodone toxicity.

Boogaard, who was laid to rest yesterday in Regina, Saskatchewan, was found dead in his Minneapolis condo a week earlier, his body discovered by his two brothers. The big-hearted Boogaard, only 28 years old, was sidelined in December after playing only 22 games, suffering a concussion in a fight with Ottawa’s Matt Carkner.

Boogaard’s family donated his brain to the Boston University-based scientists who continue their groundbreaking work at the Bedford VA hospital, examining the brains of former athletes and trying to understand the long-term impact of concussive and subconcussive hits to the head.

The autopsy might mitigate the idea that some form of brain disease or diminished capacity contributed to Boogaard’s death, but one neurologist I spoke to cautioned about drawing any conclusions. If, say, concussion-related depression contributed to Boogaard accidentally mixing booze and pain-killing narcotics, then an underlying form of brain disease, potentially caused by a hit or hits to his head, could have been the silent trigger.

ETC.
Store-bought familiarity Sometimes it’s the small things. When did Chris Kelly finally feel at home in Boston? “After about a month, when my wife and I made a trip to Costco,’’ said Kelly, whose acquisition from Ottawa helped stabilize the Bruins’ third and fourth lines. “Just getting out, getting those everyday things we needed, it was like, ‘OK, this is familiar.’ ’’ Easy to forget sometimes that pro athletes and celebrities share the same touchstones as the rest of us.

Makeup games If cities such as Winnipeg truly want to partner with the NHL, then maybe it’s time for the league to insist that they guarantee to cover losses each year equal to, say, a maximum of 50 percent of the salary cap figure. Working with the upcoming season’s figure of some $62 million, a city such as Winnipeg would be exposed to about $31 million in risk for the 2011-12 season. As the cap figure moves up, so would the city’s liability. After all, the city of Glendale this season handed over $25 million toward the Coyotes’ losses and has guaranteed a like amount for 2011-12. A cap-liability-based partnership is something even the Just Say No Players Association could find palatable.

McCrimmon on the market Ex-Bruins defenseman Brad McCrimmon — a.k.a. The Beast — and the Red Wings mutually agreed that he would not return next season for a fourth term as an assistant on coach Mike Babcock’s staff. The proud son of Plenty, Saskatchewan, finished his playing career in 1997 after 1,222 games. Raise your hand high this morning if you remember that he was dealt to Philadelphia for Pete Peeters (just another bad goaltending read by the Broad Streeters). McCrimmon, 52, in recent years has heard his name crop up for a number of head coaching positions. He has said only that there are a number of job opportunities he wants to pursue. To wit: the top bench jobs in Dallas, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ottawa, and Florida, all of which have been open for weeks. McCrimmon is a straight shooter, and with the right assistants, he could be an effective hire.

Loose pucks The ever-in-pursuit-of-a-goaltender Flyers last week signed Finnish free agent Niko Hovinen, a former Wild draft pick who stands 6 feet 7 inches and whose nickname is the Leaning Tower of Pisa because of his somewhat unorthodox stance. At the moment, it looks as if Brian Boucher won’t be back, so Hovinen might battle Sergei Bobrovsky, Johan Backlund, and/or Michael Leighton if he comes to September’s training camp . . . Tomas Kaberle probably isn’t as bad as he has looked with that Spoked-B on his chest, but those who watched him closely say he was noticeably slipping in his final months in Toronto prior to his February trade to Boston. It had been a long time since Kaberle, 33, played with any real expectations in Toronto, and even longer since he has had to cope with postseason intensity . . . If the Sharks truly are toast in the Western finals, something has to give with that star-studded roster that just can’t seem to make its way to the Cup finals, never mind win a championship. Trouble is, can GM Doug Wilson move any of his “legacy’’ pieces, with some $64 million in cap money guaranteed to Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley over the next three seasons? Of the three, only Thornton has been worth his keep in the postseason. The dollars are too big to buy out and probably too big for another team to accommodate.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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