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Moose still making tracks in Winnipeg

by Kalen Qually || AHL On The Beat Archive

When it’s game night, the view from ice level at MTS Centre during the national anthem is something to see. You can ask Manitoba Moose captain Nolan Baumgartner.

On a Friday night this November, Baumgartner prepared for the puck drop about to take place but clearly noticed that the building was nearly filled to the rafters.

“It’s a great place to play,” said Baumgartner days after his team’s 3-1 win in front of 14,134 fans on Nov. 19.

Baumgartner is a veteran of 15 professional hockey seasons and heading into 2010-11 had played 319 games for the Manitoba Moose. The remarkable scene he took in from the home team’s bench before that November game did not happen overnight for an organization celebrating its 15th anniversary.

The inaugural season of the Manitoba Moose in Winnipeg was in 1996-97 as a member organization of the International Hockey League. In 2001, the IHL folded and Mark Chipman, the chairman of the Manitoba Moose, represented his team — as well as the Chicago Wolves, Grand Rapids Griffins, Houston Aeros, Milwaukee Admirals and Utah Grizzlies — in negotiations to join the American Hockey League.

“We were able to cross over because we had a successful franchise,” said Chipman. “Of the six of us that came over, the Manitoba Moose were arguably the strongest in terms of attendance and viability.”

Part of joining the AHL meant that the Moose were no longer able to run as an independent organization, but instead had to adopt a full affiliation with a National Hockey League club. That club would be the Vancouver Canucks, with whom the Moose have developed a strong working relationship with over the past nine seasons.

“Our philosophies took some time to align,” said Moose general manager Craig Heisinger, recalling the transition period following the IHL days when the Moose were an autonomous franchise. “Once you cultivate a good relationship as an affiliate, the positives far outweigh any negatives. The most obvious of those is having access to (an NHL affiliate’s) good young players.”

If the first major event in the current evolution of the Manitoba Moose involved joining the American Hockey League and affiliating with the Vancouver Canucks, then the second event was undoubtedly the opening of MTS Centre in 2004.

“(In Winnipeg) I think it moved us to another echelon in people’s eyes,” said Heisinger, commenting on the current home of the Manitoba Moose. “When the MTS Centre opened, it took on the perception of being the place to be. It definitely attracted a different clientele to our games than the old (Winnipeg) Arena.”

In addition to the new local attention that the complex provided, the facilities in the state-of-the-art arena added to the players’ ability to call MTS Centre home. Current Vancouver Canucks Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows and Kevin Bieksa were on Manitoba’s roster on the day MTS Centre opened its doors on Nov. 17, 2004, when the Moose hosted the St. John’s Maple Leafs.

So was Baumgartner, who scored the team’s first goal in the new building that night.

Talking about the overall experience of playing for the Moose, new building and all, he said, “With a charter plane, post-game meals, and first-rate facilities, it’s how the NHL is run and that’s how they do it here.”

Baumgartner has played in over 900 professional games with 11 different National and American Hockey League teams and now calls Winnipeg home year-round along with his wife Liz and 1-year-old son.

“Craig Heisinger and Mark Chipman really put together just a great environment for the team to succeed in. They are really committed to winning here,” Baumgartner said.

“We try to treat them like the professionals that they are,” said Chipman. “These are professional hockey players and they deserve to be treated at the highest possible level we can afford. We know how tough it is to play in the American League for a player, so we try to take all the edges off of that experience.”