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By STEVE LAMBERT

WINNIPEG (CP) - Ever since the financially troubled Winnipeg Jets left for Phoenix in 1996, heartbroken Manitoba hockey fans have been quietly hoping for the NHL to return.

That quiet was broken in the middle of Manitoba's provincial election campaign when Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen boldly promised to bring back the team.

McFadyen's announcement, with former Jet Thomas Steen at his side, was aimed at showcasing the Tories as a party that could restore hope and pride.

Instead, it appears to have backfired.

"I think it was a desperation move in the middle of a campaign," said Chris Glowach, one of several people who expressed skepticism when asked about it on the streets of downtown Winnipeg.

"I thought it looked grasping and sort of desperate," said Brian Bechtel, echoing the sentiments of the majority of letters to newspapers.

Even the most fervent Jets fan was not impressed with McFadyen's public pledge.

"I've been quite happy with the goings-on behind the scenes the past few years," said Darren Ford, who for the last four years has run a website dedicated to getting the Jets back (www.jetsowner.com).

NDP Premier Gary Doer lambasted McFadyen for making the promise, but was quick to add that he has been quietly talking with private interests and exploring ways to lure a team to Winnipeg.

Still, McFadyen said his promise was the right thing to do in advance of next Tuesday's election.

"We need to be bold and we need to be optimistic," McFadyen said. "I think the economics of the league and the economics of the province are changing and we have an opportunity to move forward on it."

A new hockey team would have to be financed largely by the private sector, McFadyen said, although the province would put up money to help.

McFadyen, Ford and others are buoyed by several factors that might make an NHL team in Winnipeg more possible.

The NHL salary cap and a revenue-sharing agreement reached in 2005 have made it easier for small-market teams to survive.

The strong Canadian dollar has helped Canada's six teams cope with players' salaries, which are negotiated in U.S. dollars.

And Winnipeg has a new downtown arena which, while slightly small at 13,700 seats, offers all the amenities of a modern NHL rink.

"If you just magically plopped a team here tomorrow, it would sustain itself just fine," said Ford.

But there are stumbling blocks.

First, the NHL is not looking to expand and no teams are currently looking to move, although Ford and others say it's only a matter of time before money-losing teams in the southern U.S. look for new homes.

Second, no potential owners have come forward to say they would pay $150 million or more to buy an existing team and move it to Winnipeg.

Such a deal would likely involve True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., the owners of the downtown arena, although they aren't saying much.

"We continue to do our homework on the topic and we're in close touch with the NHL," said company spokesman Scott Brown.

"However, the asking price for an NHL team is around $180 million, and that's too expensive right now for this market."

Third, analysts say Winnipeg faces an uphill battle because it is smaller than cities such as Edmonton and Calgary, where teams have struggled to make a profit, and has fewer corporate headquarters.

"Winnipeg doesn't necessarily have that sort of profile that the NHL is interested in when it's looking for a viable franchise site, and that has to do with the metropolitan physical area, the number of corporations that can buy luxury suites and that sort of thing," said Dan Mason, a sport management professor at the University of Alberta.

Winnipeg's chances have improved thanks to the high Canadian dollar, although that could change at any time, said Mason, who has studied the ways in which cities leverage sports teams and facilities

"All you need is for the dollar to go to 62 cents, and all of the Canadian teams with the exception of the (Toronto Maple) Leafs would be in financial trouble."

Despite their 11-year absence, the Jets are still close to the hearts of Winnipeggers young and old. The team's logo is on hats, jerseys, coffee mugs and even furniture sold at sports memorabilia stores.

"It's still the best-selling NHL team we have," said Ryan Zajac, who works at the River City Sports outlet in north Winnipeg.

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