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The Great Moose Migration?

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Despite the fact that the Canucks, Sharks, Bruins and Lightning all remain in a four-horse race for Lord Stanley's mug, much of the attention of the hockey world has instead turned to the capital city of Manitoba.  When Stephen Brunt of The Globe and Mail wrote his article stating that an agreement had been reached that would see the Atlanta Thrashers be relocated to Winnipeg, it began to look like all the rumors could in fact be true.  No matter how many denials and reports to the contrary there have been over the past few weeks, it now looks like the NHL may be on its way back to Winnipeg.

As a resident of this fine city, it is a very exciting time  16 years have passed since the Jets left for the desert, which in hindsight was a huge mistake.  However, everything that was writen about why the Jets moved was true.  The $0.62 Canadian Dollar was a killer, the old arena was awful with no plan to get a new one built, and nobody wanted to own a team here under those circumstances.  But times have changed and so have the circumstances, as a strong dollar, a strong ownership group and a modern building are all now in place.  The NHL is primed and ready for a return.

What does this mean for the Vancouver Canucks current AHL affiliate?  What happens to the Manitoba Moose?

Early indications suggest that the Moose will head out to Atlantic Canada, as a report from The Telegram in St. John's, Newfoundland says that the Manitoba AHL franchise will move to "The Rock" and that the announcement will made this Friday.  This move appears to be contingent on the NHL actually returning to Winnipeg, but there seems to be too many rumors and reports coming out for all of this not to happen.  However, a Moose move to the East Coast is unlikely to make the Canucks happy, and it is likely that the affiliation between these two teams will end.  The above report also suggests that True North Sports and Entertainment will continue to own and operate the Moose franchise for at least one year, which could mean that the new Winnipeg NHL franchise would keep the Moose as their affiliate.

So what does that leave for the Vancouver Canucks?  Hard to say.  The Atlanta Thrashers AHL affiliate are the Chicago Wolves, but that may be coming to an end and the Wolves may be in the market for a new parent club.  How funny would it be if the Canucks farm team was based in Chicago?  But there may be other options, as the Florida Panthers have ended their affiliation with the Rochester Americans after years of discontent.  The Buffalo Sabres are interested in purchasing the Rochester franchise, and look to be going ahead with this despite having  an agreement with the Portland Pirates for the next few years.  Needless to say, there will likely be some wholesale changes to the entire affiliation landscape between the AHL and NHL.

So we know that affiliations will be changing, but what about the players?  Two of the better Moose players this year, Marco Rosa and Mark Flood, were signed by the Moose themselves and do not belong to the Canucks in any way.  If they are under contract next year with the Moose franchise, do they need to move to St. John's with the franchise?  Can the Canucks sign them to 2-way deals to keep them in the fold and send them wherever the new affiliate is?  Rosa had fantastic chemistry with Sergei Shirokov while Flood was on the top d-pairing with Nolan Baumgartner, so it would be too bad if these connections had to end.  I am very interested to see how this aspect plays out.

If you were to ask people in Winnipeg what they think of the Moose leaving, you will likely get three different answers.

  1. Some people will be incredibly happy when the Moose head out of town, because that means that the NHL is returning to the 'Peg.  I know many people who have refused to acknowledge that the Moose have ever existed, as they never got over the fact that the Jets left town.  These people suggest that doing so would prove that we are a minor-league city, and they question why we would want to cheer for the prospects of the former bitter-rival Vancouver Canucks.  However, they will be the first to hop back on the NHL bandwagon, since they have been waiting 16 years for this day to come.
  2. Some people will be happy that the NHL is returning, but they were also happy that the Moose were here.  These hockey fans enjoyed having a team here regardless of who they were, but only support them by going to the odd game or two.
  3. The rest of the people will be incredibly sad to lose the Moose.  When the Jets left in the Spring of 1996, Mark Chipman and TNSE made sure that Winnipeg didn't go without professional hockey as he brought over the Moose from Minnesota for the following winter.  While the first group of people above stayed away, these fans came out in droves to support the AHL Moose because it was affordable entertainment.  When I attended Moose games I saw many families and groups of kids in the stands, and I'm pretty sure that this won't be the case for NHL games.

I have to admit that I was a member of group number 2 for a number of years.  I was angry that the Jets left in the first place, but I was interested in the Moose because they were the Canucks minor-league team.  If it was a different team affiliated, however, I'm not sure that I'd have ever attended a Moose game.  Regardless, there is no question that the Moose have been a successful venture for TNSE.  I am quite certain that the MTS Centre would never have been built without the Moose being such a successful tenant, and they have certainly been that over the years.  Manitoba has been in the top 5 for league attendance for each of the past 6 years, and have been 2nd for each of the past 4 years.  Add to this the fact that the MTS Centre continues to be one of the busiest arenas in North America, and it looks like TNSE knows how to make money here.

Will I be sad to see the Moose leave?  I think so.  It was a cool opportunity as a Canucks fan to see the kids on the farm play and grow.  It is very satisfying to watch a Canucks game today and know that I watched a fair amount of this current roster as prospects.  However, it was very frustrating to always be losing players to the Canucks due to injuries, which we all know has been often over the years.  Perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow, however, was watching the Moose not ice their optimum lineup because the Canucks chose to have our best players in their press box for insurance.  While I always understood the reasoning behind these decisions, it just proved that the Moose were a minor-league team.

Will I be happy to see the NHL return to Winnipeg?  You bet.  As fun as it was to see the Canucks prospects play, I'm more pumped to see the actual Canucks come here for a few games a year.  I'm pumped that Winnipeg gets to prove once again that we are a major-league city, and I can't wait to be one of the fans that gets to prove it to the world.  I'm also looking forward to the grief I'm sure I'll get for wearing a Canucks jersey in the MTS Centre when the future Winnipeg NHL franchise hosts Vancouver, which will be often since I'm planning on getting season tickets!  I can't wait!