Paul Newberry / AP Sports Writer, Published June 01 2011
A Winnipeg welcome: Thrashers purchase secures return of NHL to Manitoba
The struggling NHL franchise was sold Tuesday to a group that will move it to Winnipeg next season, making Atlanta the first city in the league’s modern era to lose two teams.
The Flames left for Calgary in 1980. The Thrashers are following them to Canada three decades later.
“I want to thank all the Thrashers fans that supported us in Atlanta for my two years there. Very unfortunate there will be no NHL hockey,” tweeted Evander Kane, one of the team’s most promising young players. “I will miss the great people and city of Atlanta.”
True North Sports and Entertainment announced the deal during a news conference at Winnipeg’s MTS Centre, the 15,015-seat arena where the team will play. The news sparked a raucous celebration in Manitoba’s largest city, which is rejoining the league after losing the Jets to Phoenix in 1996.
The new team could also be known as the Jets, though a decision on the name has not been reached. The Thrashers name – which was coined by former owner Ted Turner and referred to the state bird of Georgia – will not be going north of the border.
Thousands of fans in red, white and blue Jets jerseys cheered, waved flags and played impromptu games of street hockey. While the deal is subject to approval of the league owners, that’s expected to be a mere formality when the board of governors meets June 21 in New York.
“It’s nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who attended the True North news conference.
In Atlanta, there was little reaction other than a tearful news conference held by co-owner Michael Gearon. He said the group that controls the Thrashers, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and operating rights to Philips Arena did all it could to find someone who would help keep the financially ailing team in the city.
No one made a serious offer.
“I’ve been focused on trying to avoid this day,” said Gearon, who was glassy eyed and broke down several times as he met with a small group of media at Philips Arena. “I spent time with possible investors going back four years ago, because I was concerned this day would come. I made a desperate plea in February. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to any real prospects. To be sitting here today is just awful for me.”
On the city’s sports-talk stations, there was more discussion about college football and the scandal that cost Ohio State coach Jim Tressel his job than losing an NHL team that, at best, attracted a niche audience.
The Thrashers made only one playoff appearance in 11 seasons and never won a postseason game. The ownership was plagued by financial problems and attendance became a major issue in recent years. The Thrashers averaged less than 14,000 a game this season, ranking 28th out of 30 teams.
Finally, the group known as Atlanta Spirit decided to bail out of the hockey business. Three weeks ago, after Glendale, Ariz., voted to subsidize the Phoenix Coyotes for another season while that troubled team tries to secure new ownership, True North turned its attention to the Thrashers.
The deal is reportedly worth $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee that would be split by the rest of the owners.
“Our spirit is back!” said Winnipeg’s Braden Hill, decked out in a Jets jersey and hockey helmet, a Canadian flag draped on his back. “Our city lost it 15 years ago. Now it’s back.”