Jets boss opens up

Mark Chipman, the chair of True North Sports and Entertainment, addresses the media in 2019.

It amazes me sometimes to contemplate the people I know. You never suspect when you are growing up that friends will accomplish great things, and be renowned in their chosen profession and in the community.

Playing high school football in Winnipeg in the 1970s allowed me to meet some special people. Mark Chipman is one of them. It was hard to imagine this modest, shy and diminutive individual one day becoming known internationally as a professional sports owner.

Chipman is the chair of True North Sports and Entertainment. His family members have been dynamic leaders in the philanthropic and business communities of Winnipeg for decades. But he is best known as the owner and team governor of the Winnipeg Jets. He was instrumental (along with David Thompson) in restoring NHL hockey to Winnipeg.

It is difficult to convey the pain and upset engendered by the loss of the original Winnipeg Jets to Arizona in 1996. The damage to civic pride was significant; the return of an NHL team to Winnipeg was largely due to the efforts of Mark Chipman, particularly in accomplishing the impossible task of building a new arena in downtown Winnipeg (originally to house his Manitoba Moose franchise in the American Hockey League).

Chipman has received significant recognition for his efforts. In 2005, he received the James C. Hendy Memorial Award as the AHL’s top executive. In 2011, he was awarded the Thomas Ebright Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to the AHL. He was made a member of the Order of Manitoba by the Province in 2012.

Despite it all, he maintains a humble demeanour and deflects considerable credit elsewhere. No one should have any doubt that he richly deserves the accolades that have been bestowed upon him.

Did I mention courage as one of his virtues? You have to be courageous in any industry where millions of dollars are at stake. In a wide ranging 90-minute conversation online, I learned how his courage manifested itself in other ways.

Despite being slight of stature, Chipman was invited to try out for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers during Cal Murphy’s first year as head coach in 1983. He spent his time at the University of North Dakota as a back-up quarterback, and special teams player.

Neither he nor Murphy believed he would actually make the team.His assignment in the Blue Bombers’ first game exhibition game was on the kickoff return team. Not as a primary returner, mind you, but as a blocker. He was told to count down the line and handle the fifth player as his assignment.

Mark realized that he was responsible to handle future Hall of Famer (and the very large and strong) James (Wild) West. He decided to count again. Same result. On the first kickoff return, he deceptively challenged West from the side. The usually affable West was none too happy. There were four more battles with West that night which Mark suggests were increasing less successful.

Needless to say, Cal Murphy was not getting free tickets to watch the Jets in the future. Murphy had a wicked sense of humour.

Chipman later became part of the unsuccessful “Save the Jets” campaign in 1996. He was crushed at the outcome when the Jets left for the deserts of Arizona but acknowledges “the economics made no sense” for the team to continue on in Winnipeg.

A high level professional hockey team like the Manitoba Moose did make sense. The NHL started to notice what was happening in Winnipeg.

It was the perfect (positive) storm of a league with a salary cap, a stronger Canadian dollar and a city with a new, state of the art hockey arena.

The NHL had also noticed that the Manitoba Moose was a highly professional, well run organization, “really a turnkey operation to convert into an NHL franchise”. The rest, as they say, is history. Winnipeg has the loudest, most enthusiastic fan base in the entire league, with repeated sell-out crowds. A team which is now building on its on ice success, in a city where civic pride has been restored.

And, as you may recall, a team which considered Thunder Bay as home to its principle farm team. Why was Thunder Bay being considered?

“First of all its proximity to Winnipeg made it easier to get players back and forth. An important element is that Thunder Bay has a discerning and knowledgeable fan base,” Chipman said. “Players need to learn to play in front of fans like that on their road to becoming professionals.

“I was working closely with Rory Cava. He would have been a wonderful partner if it had come to fruition,” he added.

In the end, it did not work out. The Jets decided to move its farm team to St. John’s. Why did Thunder Bay not get the team?

“It really came down to the building in the end. The (Fort William) Gardens is a wonderful old building, but can’t meet the needs of a professional hockey team now.”

He expressed that the Jets organization would have likely contributed to the cost of a new arena in Thunder Bay to make it happen.

The Jets have since moved the St. John’s farm team back to Winnipeg, finding that having the team in its own back yard is ideal for player movement and evaluation. There is unlikely to be any movement of the farm team anywhere, much less to Thunder Bay.

When you see Mark Chipman occasionally on television in the midst of a game (and particularly during the Jets’ recent play-off run) he is a study in intensity. It does not appear that he is really enjoying himself. That’s no surprise, really, after playing a season in an empty arena, with the complete absence of gate receipts. The fans in Winnipeg look forward to the return of raucous, capacity crowds at the newly renamed Canada Life Centre Arena for the 2021-22 hockey season. The euphoria of the return of the NHL to Winnipeg has not died down one iota.

A lot of that credit belongs to Mark Chipman.

Kevin Cleghorn is a Thunder Bay-based lawyer and sports enthusiast.