Winnipeg group to buy Thrashers

Winnipeg group to buy Thrashers

Published May. 31, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

The wait is over for Winnipeg hockey fans.

For Atlanta, it means saying goodbye to another NHL team.

True North Sports and Entertainment scheduled a news conference Tuesday at Winnipeg's MTS Centre to make ''a significant community announcement.''

True North has been in negotiations with the owners of the Atlanta Thrashers to buy the NHL team and move it to Winnipeg. The deal is reportedly worth $170 million, which includes a $60 million relocation fee that would be split by the rest of the league.

Winnipeg has been without NHL hockey since the Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996. The Thrashers entered the league three years later as an expansion franchise, but ownership problems, a losing team and dwindling attendance doomed the club. The team ranked 28th out of 30 teams this year with an average attendance of less than 14,000.

Assuming the deal goes through - it still must be approved by the other owners - Atlanta would become the first city in the NHL's modern era to lose two teams.

The Flames moved to Calgary in 1980 after eight seasons in Atlanta.


True North was making its announcement one day before the start of the Stanley Cup final, which begins Wednesday in Vancouver between the Canucks and the Boston Bruins. While there was no prohibition on announcing major news during that series, the league preferred to get the Thrashers' sale off its plate before opening its signature event.

For weeks, the two sides had been working through complex legal details on the sale and relocation of the team, while leaving open the possibility that a local buyer would emerge late in the process. No one ever came forward with a serious offer, according to the Thrashers' ownership group, Atlanta Spirit, and the city's mayor, Kasim Reed.

''It is going to hurt the city but we will withstand it just fine and we will get through it,'' Reed said.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said on his weekly radio show that the inability to find an owner who wanted to keep the team in Atlanta was a barrier the league couldn't overcome.

''It would be one of those head scratchers where you say, 'Look at all of this great corporate opportunity, look at all of this grass roots hockey, why doesn't somebody want to own a team here?''' Bettman said. ''And that would be a difficult, but unfortunate, situation to be dealing with if it has reached, or does reach, that point.''

Bettman was asked if Atlanta had hopes of landing another NHL team if it lost its second franchise.

''The prospect of leaving Atlanta isn't something that I'm particularly fond of,'' he said. ''So I can't even contemplate the notion of what would happen after that in terms of coming back. We respect the importance of Atlanta as a city. It's a big market, but this is a franchise that's got a problem in that market.''

Team president Don Waddell says there remains some hope for a late development until a sale is made official and approved by the NHL board of governors, which is scheduled to meet June 21 in New York. But considering Atlanta Spirit, which also owns the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and the operating rights to Philips Arena, has been trying for years to sell the hockey team, that seems highly unlikely.

Also, any potential owner would have to agree to become a tenant at Philips Arena, a major stumbling block because it would cut into potential revenue from sources such as concessions, parking, luxury suites and other events.

''Ownership still is committed to selling at a greatly reduced price to anyone committed to Atlanta,'' Waddell said.