Mark Chipman, who earned degrees from UND in 1983 and 1985, can’t go anywhere in Winnipeg these days without being recognized and celebrated as the man who brought professional hockey back to hockey-mad Manitoba. Earlier this year, his company, True North Sports and Entertainment, bought the Atlanta Thrashers franchise and moved it to Winnipeg, bringing the sport back to a town that was devastated when the original Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996.
Perhaps The Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor said it best in a September column:
Pulling off such a coup has turned the shy, self-effacing Chipman — youngest son of a family financial dynasty built through car dealerships — into such a hero that if he were running for premier, there would be no need for [a] vote. But why be premier when you are already king?
For all the backslapping and praise Chipman gets when he’s out and about, he says it makes him more than a bit uncomfortable. “Winnipeg is just a big small town,” says the Winnipeg native. “Most people know one another. The Jets return has cranked that up a lot. I wish I could tell you that it’s something I’m real comfortable with. [But] I wish that we could do ‘this’ with less of ‘that,’ if that makes sense.”
How Mark Chipman became the most well-liked person in Winnipeg by buying a professional hockey team — “Mind you, we haven’t lost a game yet, so we are still pretty popular,” he said this summer — has its genesis in a decision made as a youth to play on the gridiron rather than the ice.
Chipman’s dad encouraged him to play football in high school instead of hockey, and he would later walk on at UND for Gene Murphy’s squad in 1979. Pat Behrns would then take over the program. While Chipman admits he was a “very average” football player, he says being on the team and attending UND might have been the “best decision I ever made in my life.”
“I grew up at UND. I went down there as an 18-year-old and was blessed to be a part of a great football program and got a world-class education in the process,” Chipman says. “The education, the football experience, law school, and ultimately meeting my wife (Patti (Schlenker), ’85), and the friendships I established there are many of the most important friendships in my life today.”
After getting his law degree, Chipman moved to Florida, worked as a prosecutor and in private practice before heading home to work in his family’s car dealership business.
In the mid-90s when it became apparent that the Winnipeg Jets franchise was in danger of moving, Chipman found himself on a committee made up of local businesspeople fighting to save the franchise. “We felt very passionately about that at the time, our family did and the community did.” The group, though, was fighting a losing battle. A fiercely loyal fan base was not enough to counteract the effects of an aging arena and the harsh economic realities of the NHL at that time, making it difficult for a city the size of Winnipeg to support a team.
While the loss of the team was deeply disappointing, Chipman says it led him to resolve to create an atmosphere that might someday bring hockey back to Winnipeg. His first move was to buy a minor league team, the Minnesota Moose, and move it to town in order to “keep the market alive and vibrant.”
His next step would be the most important. He worked with the city and investor David Thomson, Canada’s richest person and the owner of some prime real estate in Winnipeg, to build the 15,000-seat MTS Centre for $133.5 million.
“You could not have built that facility or created the conditions for an NHL team to come back without a very community oriented, committed business leader like Mark, who was prepared to put his own reputation and assets on the line,” former Winnipeg Mayor Glenn Murray told The Canadian Press. Murray calls the construction of the MTS Centre a turning point for the city.
The MTS Centre would open in 2004, the same year that the NHL experienced a work stoppage that would alter the economic landscape in favor of Winnipeg. “When the NHL started again,” says Chipman, “it did so under a very different economic model that made the league and the game compatible with a market the size of Winnipeg.”
And yet it would be seven more years before Chipman’s quiet, behind-the-scenes campaign would bear fruit. The first effort to land a team and bring it home from Phoenix failed, but Chipman says he and his partners gained valuable understanding of how the league was working. Then, this past winter, the Atlanta Thrashers needed saving and negotiations with the NHL got serious.
“It got very exciting at the end when it became a reality, but for the most part it was just work, plowing away trying to find a way to get it done.”
For now, Winnipeg is just happy to have the NHL back thanks to the perseverance of Chipman, who will run the day-to-day operations of the Jets while serving as president of True Sports North & Entertainment. At the end of the home opener on Oct. 9, applause thundered through the MTS Centre as fans cheered their new hometown heroes despite a 5-1 loss.
The “King of Winnipeg” may not get to enjoy the anonymity of a commoner for a long, long time.
UND Alumni Review editor
Milo Smith. "Hometown Hero" (2011). UND News Features. 132.