There is discreet, and then there is Mark Chipman: zipped tight. A sealed vault. Sphinx-like. Cat got his tongue and buried it in an undisclosed location. It’s not that the 51-year-old chairman and co-owner of the reborn Winnipeg Jets is unfriendly, or even uncommunicative. It’s just that he can keep a secret. Even a really big one.
Virtually from the moment the original Jets decamped to Phoenix in the spring of 1996, Chipman was working on a plan to bring the NHL back. First, he brought in a minor-league franchise, the Moose, to fill the hockey void. Then, he and his colleagues at True North Sports and Entertainment succeeded where so many others had failed—partnering with David Thomson, the country’s richest man, to build a new downtown arena, the MTS Centre. They ran their team with class and efficiency and turned the venue into a cash box. All the while scarcely breathing a word of their larger ambitions.
Chipman had started quietly lobbying NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about a return to Winnipeg as far back as 1999. It was a topic of conversation when they met at the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002. As the new, 15,000-seat building went up in 2004, he kept the league in the loop. After the NHL’s 2005 lockout and salary cap changed the economics of the game, Chipman and his team went to Edmonton and Ottawa to research how to make a small Canadian hockey market work. All involved were sworn to secrecy.
In 2007, True North was invited to the league offices in New York to make the case. Nobody in the press found out until six months later. The group kicked the tires on the then-troubled Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators. By the winter of 2010, Chipman was deep in negotiations to buy the struggling Phoenix Coyotes. In May, he spent a week holed up at NHL headquarters putting the finishing touches on the deal. Maybe 10 people, almost all of them family, knew where he was and why.
They were five minutes away from getting the team when the City of Glendale wired $25 million to the league to keep the Coyotes in Arizona. Back in Winnipeg, the MTS Centre had already been set up for the press conference. Word never leaked out. “We didn’t want to disappoint people,” Chipman explained. “We’d been through it in ’96, and one thing I didn’t want to do was raise people’s expectations and let them down.”
It was a year later, and a different franchise, when the city finally got its team back. Chipman says Atlanta, with more, and younger, players under contract, was the better deal anyway. The entire country celebrated the news. In Winnipeg, people’s feet still haven’t touched the ground.
Just before the new Jets’ first game, Chipman stood on the ice at the MTS Centre soaking up the ovations and outpouring—the reward for his quiet determination, almost too overwhelming to put into words. “I think when you lose something, if something is taken away,” he told Maclean’s, “when it comes back, the emotions stirred in people are exponentially stronger.”