WINNIPEG – The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are looking forward to facing opponents this season—even if that includes an NHL team.
Bombers president Jim Bell believes there’s enough sports dollars to go around if Winnipeg-based True North Sports and Entertainment completes a deal to buy the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers and move them to Manitoba.
“Will there be an impact of the NHL returning to Winnipeg? There may be,” Bell said during a media conference call.
“But our feeling within the management of the Winnipeg Football Club is there is room for three (professional sports teams) in the city of Winnipeg.”
He noted the Bombers, who finished with a CFL-low record of 4-14 last season, had sold just over 17,800 season tickets by Tuesday. Last year’s total season-ticket count was just under 17,800.
“We feel that with the partnership that we have with our community as a whole, we don’t feel threatened (with the return of the NHL),” said Bell.
“It’ll be very workable for us as a club and we look forward to that.”
True North has been quietly negotiating with the Thrashers about moving the team north of the border, a deal Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz says is just “a matter of time.”
Winnipeg has been without an NHL team since the Jets moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes in 1996.
Robert Warren, a marketing professor at the University of Manitoba, doesn’t foresee a huge shift of Bomber fans turning to support an NHL team instead.
“It’s going to be a very limited impact,” said Warren. “I base that on the fact that back in the ’80s and ’90s we had an NHL and a CFL team here and I don’t think they saw a lot of problems at that point.
“One reason is that the fans are a little bit different. Your football fans versus your hockey fans, you’re going to have some overlap, but there’s also going to be very distinct groups.”
Where Warren does see a potential for an NHL team to take ticket dollars away from the Bombers is if the CFL team doesn’t perform well on the field and walk-up fans choose to catch some hockey games instead.
“The good news is, with the new (football) facility coming along, I think they’re in a really good position in the near term to combat that,” Warren said of the new Bomber stadium that’s on track to replacing aging Canad Inns Stadium in 2012.
“People will want to be part of the new stadium.”
When it comes to attracting corporate money, he said larger companies could afford supporting both sports teams, but it’s the small- to medium-sized businesses that may have to decide where they get the most bang for their bucks.
Many Bomber fans are optimistic their team will have a better year following a season of close calls. Winnipeg lost nine games last year by four or fewer points—a CFL record—and another by seven points.
Second-year head coach Paul LaPolice said the near-misses will be a topic of conversation when he meets with his new squad.
“They were close, but they were still losses,” LaPolice said. “And that’s the first note. We have to understand that we’re not in this to get close, we’re in this to win.”
He and his staff studied film from every game to analyze what went right and wrong.
“I hope they learn from their mistakes and they’ve learned better and learn how to finish in some of these situations,” LaPolice said.
One question mark that continues to hover over the Bombers is their quarterbacking situation.
Seven-year veteran Buck Pierce suffered a knee injury early in the season and then returned to dislocate the elbow of his throwing arm in early September.
Steven Jyles moved into the starting role, but in Game 16 he injured his shoulder and backup Alex Brink broke his collarbone. The team was left to start rookie Joey Elliott.
Pierce stayed in Winnipeg over the winter to rehab his elbow and is expected to be the starter with Elliott backing him up. Jyles was traded to the Toronto Argonauts for a 2011 Canadian college first-round draft pick and a conditional 2012 fourth-round draft pick.
“(Pierce has) been throwing for months,” LaPolice said. “He came in this morning and told me he’s in the best shape of his career so we’re looking forward to getting him an opportunity to continue to play in our system.”
LaPolice said Elliott has shown leadership abilities and strong skills.
“The thing I like most about him, that’s very similar to Buck, is hemakes a decision and he throws the ball quickly.”
The Bombers open the regular season July 1 in Hamilton against the Tiger-Cats and host the Argonauts a week later.