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True North confirms purchase of Thrashers

After a short preamble about the dark years since April, 1996 when the Winnipeg Jets departed for Phoenix, the city's newest hero stepped to the podium at the MTS Centre on Tuesday morning and confirmed the hopes that tantalized Winnipeggers through the last few years. They were back in the NHL.

"Today, on behalf of my family, our partner David Thomson and our entire organization, I am exited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers," said Mark Chipman, the chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., and the driving force behind the move of the team to Winnipeg. "In a sense, you could say True North, our city and our province has received a call we've long been waiting for."

Six blocks east of the arena at The Forks, the city's largest public gathering place where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet, thousands of hockey fans let out a roar of joy. The party was finally on. Bands struck up the music and the celebration roared into the evening.

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The business deal that local officials say restored the pride of the citizens in their city is fairly simple. Chipman and Thomson, whose family company owns The Globe and Mail, paid $170-million (U.S.) for the Thrashers, who were never a consistent success in the NHL's second foray into Atlanta. A sale and move will not be official until the NHL's board of governors gives its approval at a meeting scheduled for June 21.

In the meantime, Chipman said True North needs to show the NHL governors Winnipeg will be an economic success, in its second attempt at supporting an NHL team, by selling at least 13,000 season tickets for the 15,015-seat arena before the governors meeting. They are asking fans to make commitments of three to five years for the tickets, which are priced between $39 and $129 with an average price of just over $80, prices that are similar to those of the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators.

The team will stay in the Southeast Division of the NHL's Eastern Conference for the coming season. It will be decided in the coming months which of the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators or Columbus Blue Jackets will move east from the Western Conference to make room for the Winnipeg team.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman warned that "this isn't going to work very well if this building isn't sold out every night" but no one was doubting the target of 13,000 will be reached. The tickets will be available to the public starting June 4 at the web site .

"I think we've underscored the latent power and the will of this community to see a team appear and be successful," Thomson said.

Winnipeg lost the Jets to Phoenix in 1996, when the team was renamed the Coyotes.

"We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn't left," Bettman said.

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Both Manitoba Premier Greg Sellinger and Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said the arrival of the Thrashers is a boost to community pride.

"We owe David Thomson and Mark Chipman a big thank-you for believing in our community," Mayor Katz said. "We all talk about the economic impact [of an NHL team] But what is more important is the pride of Winnipeggers in their city is restored after a 15-year absence.

"You can't put a measure on that."

True North and Atlanta Spirit, LLC, the Thrasher owners, knew they had a sale essentially nailed down about two weeks ago. But it took all of that time to complete the details, with the last signature going on the agreement at 6 a.m. Eastern time on Tuesday after a night of negotiations between lawyers from both sides plus the NHL. Of the total payment for the franchise, $60-million will go to the league as a relocation fee.

Atlanta became the only city to lose two franchises, since expansion of the NHL in 1967 to 12 teams. Thirty-one years ago, the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary.

Atlanta part-owner Michael Gearon Jr. told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution than he began trying to entice investors starting in December 2007, meeting in Atlanta with Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie and in July 2008 with movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He claimed to abandon discussions with Balsillie after realizing his goal was to move the team to Ontario.

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"I was looking for somebody back then -- 2007, 2008 -- because I was saying, 'I know there's going to come a time this train is going to hit a wall,'" Gearon said. "So years ago, I'm doing everything I can to avoid hitting that wall. . . . I believed I could find somebody."

On May 21, Thrashers president Don Waddell informed him that the widow of an unidentified man who had dreamed of owning an NHL franchise, had decided against pursuing ownership of the franchise herself. Gearson said she represented the last hope to keep the team in place, albeit thin.

In Manitoba, the province is assisting True North financially without directly subsidizing the team. A sports bar will be built across the street with video lottery terminals, which are controlled by the province. Under a 20-year agreement, True North will get up to $4-million per year of the gambling money.

The team still does not have a name and Chipman said he and his staff have not yet considered how to choose one. He said a plan will be announced shortly and both Jets and the Manitoba Moose, the American Hockey League team that will now leave Winnipeg for St. John's, are possibilities.

At this point, the future of the Thrashers management and coaching staff is not certain. Chipman said he knows and admires Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley, who is thought to have four years left on his contract, but stopped short of saying Dudley will remain in his post. Waddell told a conference call that he would not be moving to Winnipeg.

Chipman did say Moose general manager Craig Heisinger will have a "significant" role with the NHL team, although it has not been defined yet.

The Thrashers finished 12th in the Eastern Conference last season with after a second-half collapse pulled them out of playoff contention. They had a player payroll of $41-million (U.S.), which is near the floor of the NHL's salary cap.

Chipman said the plan is to keep the team payroll near the midpoint or lower, which will probably be around $50-million next season "and build on that." They will have the seventh overall selection at the NHL entry draft later this month and Chipman said, "we will not be trading that pick."

Attention, hockey fans: Whether you're in Winnipeg or Wetaskiwin, Toronto or Moose Jaw, send us your photos from celebrations marking the return of NHL hockey to the Jets' former hometown. Click here for instructions on how to upload your shots.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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