Three days after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman condemned reports that the Atlanta Thrashers were on the verge of moving comes confirmation the team's owners are negotiating a sale to a Winnipeg group.
Citing a source familiar with the situation, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Monday that officials from Atlanta Spirit, the company that owns the Thrashers, have been talking to True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. for some time. True North is controlled by Winnipeg businessman Mark Chipman and David Thomson, whose family owns The Globe and Mail. True North also owns the MTS Centre in Winnipeg and the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
None of the principals would comment in detail, but none denied the story. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and a spokesman for True North both declined to comment. Atlanta Thrashers president Don Waddell did not respond to a request for comment.
The league has not notified the NHL Players' Association that a move is imminent. However, those familiar with similar situations in the past say the union is not usually notified until just before a sale and move are announced. Union officials do believe the possibility of a move is growing.
Bruce Levenson, one of the co-owners of the Thrashers, told the Journal-Constitution on Monday: "I have never confirmed nor denied specific parties we have been talking to in regards to a possible sale of the Thrashers."
The Winnipeg Free Press reported the NHL is working on two separate schedules for next season. It said both the Atlanta and Winnipeg groups were asked to submit available arena dates.
While NHL sources have said moving the Thrashers to Winnipeg would allow the league to move one of the Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets or Nashville Predators to the Eastern Conference, it is not known if the sale can be completed in time to realign the conferences and divisions.
The most likely candidate to move east is the Predators, who could take the Thrashers' spot in the Southeast Division. The Winnipeg team could then join the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks in the Northwest Division, with the Minnesota Wild moving from the Northwest to the Central Division to replace Nashville.
Getting permission to move is not expected to be a problem for the Thrashers. Their seven-year agreement with the NHL not to ask permission to move expired last fall. NHL bylaws decree a team wanting to relocate must ask for permission by Jan. 1 in the year before a planned move, but this can be waived if a majority of NHL governors agree.
While the Journal-Constitution also reported the Thrashers met on Monday with a group interested in keeping the team in Atlanta, this possibility has been discounted by several sources. One source familiar with Atlanta Spirit's attempts to sell the team because of financial losses in excess of $100-million (all currency U.S.) said no "owner willing to pay five cents for the team" has ever been found.
It is expected True North will pay $160-million to $170-million for the Thrashers, with as much as $60-million going to the league as a relocation fee.
Once an agreement is reached, True North will have to find a new home for the Moose. However, AHL president Dave Andrews said recently there is a "Plan B" for the Moose if the Thrashers head to Winnipeg.
While this will be the second go-round in the NHL for Winnipeg (the Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996), it will be the second time the NHL failed in Atlanta. In 1980, the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary.
Monday's developments showed the situation was far more advanced than Friday when Bettman tried to play down reports of a Thrashers move.
"I mean, people who are reporting on this stuff are simply making it up, and that's unfortunate for our fans," Bettman said on his weekly radio show. "It's unfortunate for the fans who have a club they don't want to lose, and it's unfortunate for building up expectations in other places."