WINNIPEG - Manitoba taxpayers won't subsidize an NHL team in Winnipeg but the province will consider everything else in its power to score the return of professional hockey, Premier Greg Selinger said Wednesday.
He said the province isn't involved with the negotiations between True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. and the Atlanta Thrashers. But provincial officials have been in constant contact with the True North team for over a year about the possibility of bringing a team back to the city, Selinger said.
"We have no interest as a provincial government in supporting the operations of a hockey team," Selinger said.
He then added that doesn't mean Manitoba can't make the city a desirable place for the Thrashers. The province could help with any renovations that might need to be done to the downtown MTS Centre to support a team, he said.
"We will work closely with them to ensure there can be success in Manitoba," he said.
"They'll look after the NHL franchise. If we can do more to support the building, serving a strong public role, we'll consider that."
Winnipeg lost its beloved Jets in 1996 when the team moved to Phoenix because of financial problems. Since then, Winnipeg has built a new arena—the MTS centre—and has argued it can support an NHL franchise once again.
Rumours of a team returning to Winnipeg have been rampant since the team departed and many are skeptical about the latest reports. But excitement is also growing with some fans already debating online over what the prospective team should be called.
Winnipeg has a good case for joining the NHL again, Selinger said. Since 1996, he said unemployment has fallen and people have more disposable income.
"We're much stronger now," he said. "I'm very optimistic that we can support an NHL franchise. I'm excited about the possibility of it coming to Manitoba and, if it comes, it will be a success."
The Conference Board of Canada recently released a study evaluating whether Winnipeg and Quebec City could support an NHL team again. The study concluded both cities have larger populations than when they lost their respective teams in the mid-1990s and there is more disposable income in both areas.
The high Canadian dollar is also an advantage when it comes to paying out salaries in U.S. dollars, the study noted.
But even some hockey fans in Winnipeg were lukewarm to the idea of provincial involvement in bringing a team back to the city.
"It is possible to be in favour of NHL hockey in Winnipeg and against having NHL hockey subsidized by government," said one fan.
"If people want hockey here, then they can pay for it from their own pockets, not mine," said another fan on a Facebook page devoted to bringing back the Jets.
"The government has no business subsidizing NHL hockey tickets. The government's business is fixing roads and building bridges, both of which this province desperately needs."
"Looks like they won't fund the team, but will fund anything to do with the MTS Centre," added another fan. "A cynic might say that this is an interesting way to say the taxpayers aren't funding the team, while still actually funding the team."