Saturday, February 12, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

For the benefit of those of you in Winnipeg who have been frothing at the mouth for the past decade and a half waiting on pins and needles for an NHL team to magically reappear on your doorstep, I present the following comparison of a couple of hypothetical owners of such a team.

Owner “A” acts as a steward for the franchise that he assumes responsibility for on behalf of the community that proudly calls the team its own. He will hire a qualified management team based on the strength of their professional qualifications and will give the team the support and resources they need to run the franchise effectively with a minimal level of direction. Owner “A” will, however, insist on accountability to the fans and that the organization work to earn the fans' patronage that must never be taken for granted. In addition, building a competitive product over the long term will be a major priority for Owner “A”.

If things do not go as well as expected, when faced with criticism, Owner “A” does a careful introspective and endeavors to discover what he could be doing better to address the fans' concerns. If, after giving management ample opportunity, they have either alienated the fan base or failed to deliver a winner, Owner “A” will make whatever changes are necessary to ensure that his customers are treated in a first-class manner and that they are given a quality product to watch on a nightly basis.

Owner “A” believes that no one person, including the owner, is more important than the team.

Owner “B” assumes control of the franchise and immediately installs a management team comprised of his loyal cronies. The professional qualifications of these cronies are of little concern to Owner “B”.

Together with his cronies, Owner “B” becomes heavily involved in every facet of the organization ranging from player moves to persuading the league to assign opponents on the schedule based solely on his personal preferences. Over time, fans begin to see the franchise as a personal asset of Owner “B” rather than an asset of the community and they become unable to separate the identity of the team from that of the owner.

Owner “B” expects the fans' patronage and believes he is doing customers a favor by accepting their business. Though Owner “B” freely admits to making mistakes, he continues to make more of them.

If things do not go as well as expected, replacing the cronies and/or relinquishing day-to-day control of the franchise are out of the question. When faced with criticism, Owner “B” calls his lawyer.

Meanwhile, rather than work to earn the patronage of current and potential customers, Owner “B” skillfully cultivates relationships with politicians and government officials in order to obtain concessions and handouts to make up for the shortfall in revenue caused by a declining and increasingly apathetic customer base.

Building a competitive product over the long term is a priority for Owner “B”, but only if it can be done within the management framework he has laid out.

Now if I were living in a city that had a realistic chance of landing an NHL franchise, I would naturally prefer Owner “A”. Having suffered under Barry Shenkarow’s management of the Jets as they wallowed in eternal mediocrity during their time in the NHL, I can’t imagine patronizing that kind of ownership again, let alone something considerably worse.

If, however, the prospect of being subjected to Owner “B” is enticing to you, then you’ve found your man. You’re just the kind of customer Mark Chipman is waiting for. Check behind you. There may already be a “Kick Me Hard” sign pasted to your derriere.

I can understand the feelings of desperate and jilted fans who had their team stolen from underneath their noses. They want their team back. So do I.

However, blindly throwing your money and loyalty at an owner like Mr. Chipman doesn’t make you a better fan. It just drains you of money and passion and makes you feel like you’ve been taken advantage of.

Ceaselessly beating a drum in the hopes of obtaining an NHL franchise without an equally strong effort to ensure quality ownership for the team is an exercise in utter futility. Personally, I would want a team I can be proud to be a fan of. I want to know that the team appreciates my patronage. Winnipeggers weren’t afforded this privilege under the ownership of Barry Shenkarow and they won’t get it under Mark Chipman.

For all the hot air that continues to swirl around the vague prospect of an NHL team returning to Winnipeg, many of the biggest obstacles to a successful franchise, just as they were in 1996 when the Jets left, lie not with Gary Bettman and the NHL, but within Winnipeg itself. Money remains scarce and the ownership is guaranteed to be poor as long as Mr. Chipman remains entrenched as the Hockey Tsar of Winnipeg.

But, if you are prepared to accept any owner just for the sake of saying that you live in an NHL city, all I can do is repeat the time-honored line of “Be careful what you wish for”. It promises to be a painful ride.

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