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NHL Board unanimous on Winnipeg sale, relocation

by Dan Rosen
NEW YORK -- The wait officially is over. Winnipeg is back on the National Hockey League's map.

The League's Board of Governors gave its unanimous stamp of approval for the sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to the group from Winnipeg at its meeting in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday. It's the first franchise relocation in the NHL since 1997, when the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes.

True North Sports & Entertainment purchased the club from the Atlanta Spirit group for a reported $170 million and paid the NHL a $60 million relocation fee to move the team to Winnipeg, which hasn't had an NHL team since the Jets left for Phoenix after the 1995-96 season.

"The Board unanimously approved both the sale of the Atlanta franchise to True North, which is Mark Chipman and David Thomson, and the relocation of Thrashers to Winnipeg," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "Obviously, everybody is sorry and distressed and unhappy that we found ourselves in the circumstance where our franchise was leaving Atlanta. We feel particularly sorry for the fans over there. But obviously, based on the reception that we've gotten, everybody is extremely excited about the opportunities in Winnipeg for our return."

"We are very honored by the NHL Board of Governors' unanimous decision today. We know that the fans of this province have an appetite for NHL hockey that is rivaled by few in the League and intend to work very hard to make Manitobans proud of our franchise for years to come."
-- Mark Chipman, True North Sports & Entertainment Chairman of the Board

The still-unnamed Winnipeg franchise will begin play in the Southeast Division in 2011-12, with the expectation that it will be moved to the Western Conference starting in 2012-13.

"We are very honored by the NHL Board of Governors' unanimous decision today," said Chipman, Chairman of the Board, True North Sports & Entertainment. "We know that the fans of this province have an appetite for NHL hockey that is rivaled by few in the League and intend to work very hard to make Manitobans proud of our franchise for years to come."

Winnipeg will play its home games in the 15,015-seat MTS Centre, which previously was home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.

The MTS Centre will be the smallest arena in the NHL, but it likely won't feel that way with 13,000 season tickets already sold and, according to Bettman, "somewhere in the vicinity of a quarter of a million expressions of interest in having season tickets for the franchise."

True North announced earlier this month that 7,158 season tickets were sold in a three-day pre-sale and the remaining 5,842 were purchased online in four minutes and officially processed in 17 minutes.

"The fact of the matter is people have noticed very clearly what Winnipeg has accomplished in a very short period of time," Bettman said. "The response from the corporate community has been outstanding as well. Sometimes it's not just the size of the market; sometimes it's a function of the intensity of the market."

That said, Toronto President and GM Brian Burke said there is cautious optimism among the Board of Governors that Winnipeg will work as an NHL market in the long term.

"I think Winnipeg could have sold the building out three times. The challenge isn't the first five years," Burke said. "What I've said is I believe in the marketplace, but everybody in Winnipeg has to support this team. It's far from over with the fact that they sold the building out in two minutes or 10 minutes. The first five years is the easy part, that's the low-hanging fruit. It's harder if you're in Year 5 and the team hasn't won a championship and you're renewing all those things. That's the test.

"We're all glad the team is back, but there are challenges in that market. It's that simple. It's the smallest market we're in. People need to support this team."

Winnipeg has been operating as a franchise since the sale was announced May 31.

Kevin Cheveldayoff was hired as the team's general manager June 8, replacing Rick Dudley, who was not retained despite having three years left on his contract. Craig Heisinger, formerly the GM of the Moose, was hired the same day to be Winnipeg's Director of Hockey Operations and Assistant General Manager.

Cheveldayoff and Heisinger currently are in the process of hiring a new coach to replace Craig Ramsay, who was told Monday that he will not be back with the team even though he still has one year left on his contract. Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Mike Haviland and Claude Noel, who coached the Manitoba Moose last season, reportedly are the top two candidates for the Winnipeg coaching job.

Marcel Comeau, who has been the Thrashers' head scout since 2003, is expected to implement Winnipeg's draft strategy this weekend at the 2011 Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn. Winnipeg has the seventh selection in the first round Friday.

Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr no longer is with the franchise.

"They have been a city pursuing an NHL franchise for a period of time," said Devils CEO/President/GM Lou Lamoriello. "The ownership there has been fantastic in the American Hockey League. They made as good of a presentation as you can ask for. I think they deserve it. I think it's just going to work out fantastic."

Winnipeg did not have any representation at the Board of Governors meeting because it officially was not a member of the League, but former Thrashers President Don Waddell was here representing his now-defunct franchise.

He wished the franchise well and said he believes the team can compete for a playoff berth this season.

"It's a sad day for hockey fans in Atlanta, but the franchise is going to a good place and run by good people and I wish them well because they have a lot of good people that are going to go with them," Waddell said. "They (the Board of Governors) heard the story of why it wasn't working in Atlanta and the bright side is what's happening in Winnipeg with ticket sales and so forth. So, it was voted by all 30 members."

Additional reporting by Emily Kaplan. 
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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