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Winnipeg group has deal to buy, move Thrashers

Tuesday, 05.31.2011 / 12:22 PM / Winnipeg NHL Franchise

By Bob Condor - NHL.com Editor-in-Chief

WINNIPEG -- The National Hockey League took a first step toward returning to the city of Winnipeg with Tuesday's announcement that True North Sports and Entertainment has acquired the Atlanta Thrashers, subject to an approval process by the NHL Board of Governors that will unfold in June.

True North Chairman Mark Chipman made the announcement, accompanied on the podium by prospective new owner David Thomson, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and True North President and CEO Jim Ludlow.

"Today, on behalf of my family, our partner David Thomson and our entire organization, I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers," Chipman said. "In a sense, I guess you can say True North, our city and our province has received the call we've long since been waiting for."

Chipman traced the timeline of events for the True North ownership group, starting with his personal involvement in trying to keep the Jets franchise in Winnipeg during the mid-1990s, then outlining his family's purchase of the AHL's Manitoba Moose, joining forces with Thomson and, about a year ago, approaching Selinger with the increasingly realistic possibility of Winnipeg getting NHL hockey back in this town and province.

"Today, on behalf of my family, our partner David Thomson and our entire organization, I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers. In a sense, I guess you can say True North, our city and our province has received the call we've long since been waiting for." -- True North Chairman Mark Chipman

Occasionally struggling with emotions no doubt fueled by a deep pride of accomplishment and a tinge of sleep deprivation -- there was a 4:30 a.m. ET conference call Tuesday morning and the agreement among the Atlanta ownership, True North and NHL was yet not fully hammered out -- Chipman made clear that Bettman was "always thoughtful" in response to the potential for Winnipeg regaining a team. The True North chairman referenced a 2007 presentation to the NHL Board of Governors as a significant moment in reaching Tuesday's joyous mood in the MTS Centre and throughout the streets of the city.

The sale is still pending approval by the NHL Board of Governors, which next meets on June 21 in New York. Before that, Thomson and Chipman will interview on June 7 with the League's Executive Committee, represented by 10 team ownership groups. At the June 21 full meeting, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and the executive committee make a recommendation to the full Board. Then there will be two votes, one on the new ownership and another on the relocation. Transfer of ownership requires a 75 percent vote of approval, while relocation requires a majority vote.

After those two votes, the celebrations in Winnipeg and Manitoba, strong and throaty Tuesday, figure to resonate even more at the Forks, a public meeting place at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, plus the legendary intersection of Portage and Main downtown where eastern Canada met the Wild West back in the day.

MTS Centre is where the team would play next season pending those approvals. The building, which seats 15,015 for hockey, is currently home to the AHL's Manitoba Moose and has hosted recent NHL preseason games.

In his remarks, True North CEO Ludlow detailed the new ownership group's goal to sell 13,000 season tickets prior to the Board of Governors meeting, which Bettman said "is the best message to send the NHL Board of Governors before they meet on June 21." Ludlow explained season ticket packages will range from sections with $39 per game tickets up to $129 per game for the most premium seat. He presented numbers to show the Winnipeg fans' ticket prices will compare positively with the Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary franchises, especially on the higher end.

The ticket campaign begins in earnest Wednesday at 1 p.m. Central with a three-day priority sale for Manitoba Moose season-ticket and mini-pack ticket holders plus corporate clients. Ludlow said the "puck drops" on the general public sale Saturday at 10 a.m. Central. He encouraged all interested fans to visit www.driveto13.com to "familiarize" with the ticket-buying process ahead of purchase time. There will be no phone sales for the season-ticket campaign, though, impressively, every ticket buyer will be allowed to visit MTS Centre in the next eight to 10 weeks to personally select their seats during individual appointments.

The commissioner later added that with the amount of interest shown in recent years by the general public in getting a team back in Winnipeg, he couldn't begin to imagine a scenario in which the season ticket goal wasn't met.

"It is clear that times have changed for Winnipeg as an NHL market and this is a wonderful time to add a club to Canada," Bettman said. "Hockey in Canada has never been stronger. The NHL has a different economic system that allows the so-called 'smaller markets' to compete. The NHL is coming off another season of record revenues in both Canada and the United States, and our prospects remain extraordinarily bright.

"This venue, the MTS Centre, will be a fine, fine home for an NHL club. And there is the strength of the prospective ownership group. We now also -- and perhaps this is the most poignant point -- get to be back in a place we wish we hadn't left in 1996."

If approved, the Thrashers' move from Atlanta to Winnipeg is the League's first franchise relocation since 1997, when the Hartford franchise moved to Carolina. It is the third NHL relocation in the last 16 years. In the same period, the National Football League has moved four teams, while the National Basketball Association moved three franchises and Major League Baseball moved one.

Tuesday's announcement comes after several years of the League and the Atlanta ownership group attempting to find a local group to purchase and operate the Thrashers in their current city and arena.

"As we have said repeatedly, we don't like to move franchises," Bettman said. "But sometimes, even if it's been 14 years since the last time we moved a franchise, we simply have no choice, as was the case back in '96 when the Jets left Winnipeg. … No one, at that time, wanted to own the Jets any longer in Winnipeg."

The Jets relocated to Arizona prior to the 1996-97 season and became the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Jets originally came into existence in 1972 and spent seven seasons playing in the World Hockey Association before joining the NHL for the 1979-80 season. Bobby Hull scored more than 300 goals for the club during its WHA days and current Anaheim Ducks star Teemu Selanne scored a rookie-record 76 goals for Winnipeg during the 1992-93 season.

Following the announcement, AHL president and CEO David Andrews released a statement praising Chipman as "an influential leader as an owner in the AHL."

"The future of the Manitoba AHL franchise will be determined in the weeks ahead," said Andrews. "We look forward to Winnipeg's NHL club developing its top prospects in the AHL."

Chipman said his philosophy with running the Moose was "to operate as though we were part of the NHL." On Tuesday, for Chipman, a city, a province and, indeed, a country, that visualization came to life.

Once again, it shows character in this dressing room. Once again, there's no quitting in here. We all wanted this so bad and we worked so hard to get home-ice advantage and we weren't going to let this one slide.

— Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog on his team's OT Game 1 win vs. Minnesota Wild