And after the seventh NHL hockey team returned to Canada, the hockey gods rested. But the long-suffering people of Winnipeg rejoiced well into the last day of May and the first day of the rest of their professional hockey-loving lives.
Manitoba’s capital city got an NHL franchise back early Tuesday afternoon when the True North Sports and Entertainment Group announced it had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers for $170 million and was relocating the team to Winnipeg. And just like that, the decade-and-a-half of agony Winnipeggers endured after the Jets left for Phoenix disappeared into the daylight, now just scar tissue on a wind-whipped civic body fully deserving of some karmic payback.
Finally, the world’s best hockey players would skate within Winnipeg’s borders again. Finally, the city could dream of hosting a Stanley Cup parade again. Finally, Canada would have another horse in the toughest race of them all.
Now, the deal to move the Thrashers organization out of Georgia isn’t signed, sealed and delivered just yet. Winnipeg residents still will have to show they want the product by participating in a ticket drive and selling a minimum of 13,000 season ticket packages that can run fans anywhere from $10,500 over a three-year term to $58,000 for a five-year ticket purchasing agreement (visit the website www.DriveTo13.com for more details). And they have to do so prior to a June 21 NHL Board of Governors meeting where the deal will be either ratified or rejected.
But make no mistake: by the looks of Winnipeggers crowding the streets in a spontaneous eruption of excitement and pride, there was nothing to be delicate about. Technicalities and tentativeness could be left to the principals in the deal. This was the return of a child lost in some faraway jungle, but never given up on. And everyone at the press conference — with the arguable exception of commissioner Gary Bettman, who smiled as one would when trapped in a broom closet with an ex-spouse — was beaming with joy.
“I had met and began to establish a relationship with Gary Bettman through my involvement in the merger of the international American Hockey League,” said Mark Chipman, founder and chairman of True North, who helped bankroll the AHL’s Manitoba Moose franchise when the Winnipeg Jets left for Phoenix in 1996. “Although I suspect he may not recall it, I remember telling him at that time that I expected our city would one day again take membership in the NHL.
“I guess you could say that True North, our city and our province has received the call we’ve long since been waiting for.”
Added Chipman’s main partner in True North, David Thomson: “I have a deep attachment to the city, to the province, to the country. It’s about time.”
The other part of the equation was the NHL packing up and leaving Atlanta for the second time in league history. For people who had committed their money and emotion to the Thrashers, the news was a devastating confirmation of rumors that had dragged on for weeks. The Thrashers’ soon-to-be-former owners will receive $110 million for the team and the league will receive $60 million for what it terms a relocation fee, but the fans pay the biggest price for a consistently mismanaged team that couldn’t win so much as a playoff game in its 11 seasons of existence.
Former Thrasher Bobby Holik said it was clear the years of infighting among the team’s ownership group in Atlanta had a negative effect on the on-ice product.
“I signed with the Thrashers because I believed in the direction of the team,” said Holik, who played in Atlanta from 2005-2008. “And we were heading in the right direction. In my second year with the team we made the playoffs. But after that, the ownership disagreement escalated and I remember (former Thrashers GM) Don Waddell made the statement that the disagreement amongst owners would not affect the day-to-day hockey (operations).
“And I’m thinking, that’s bull (expletive), pardon my French. They needed to fire (former Thrashers coach Bob) Hartley after my second year and they did not, because they did not want to hire another coach and still pay Hartley.
“We needed to re-sign (former Thrashers defenseman) Greg de Vries, someone who might not have been the best player, but who was a crucial cog in our team machine. They couldn’t re-sign him because they signed another player for, say, $200,000-$300,000 less. So the ownership disagreement directly affected the hockey ops.”
Still, for as much as you felt for Thrashers fans who never got a chance to appreciate a consistently good NHL team, you had to be happy for Winnipeg fans.
Not even the challenges that lie ahead for the franchise (including the words of an NHL player agent who told THN weeks ago, “Players are talking about Winnipeg. No one — and I mean no one — wants to play there. You think Edmonton has a PR problem? Watch this one.”) could remove the new car smell from the noses of those who’ve been jonesing for an NHL ride since the moment the last car left the city limits.
“NHL, welcome home,” added Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger. “The NHL is going to be here for good.”
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book "The Top 60 Since 1967," is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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