NHL owners give green light for Atlanta Thrashers to move

The NHL board of governors has unanimously approved the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers, paving the way for the club to move to Winnipeg for next season.

NEW YORK — The NHL board of governors has unanimously approved the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers, paving the way for the club to move to Winnipeg for next season.

True North Sports and Entertainment bought the team last month and announced it was bringing the Thrashers to Winnipeg, which lost the Jets to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season. Tuesday’s vote by the board was the final hurdle in the process to relocate the team.

The votes on the sale and the relocation were unanimous among the league’s owners.

“We are very honoured by the NHL board of governors’ unanimous decision today,” Mark Chipman, True North’s chairman of the board, said in a statement.

“We know that the fans of this province have an appetite for NHL hockey that is rivalled by few in the league and intend to work very hard to make Manitobans proud of our franchise for years to come.”

There was a different emotion in Atlanta.

“It’s a sad day for hockey fans in Atlanta, but the franchise is going to a good place and run by good people,” Thrashers president Don Waddell said. “I wish them well, because a lot of good people that are going to go with them.”

The sale is reportedly for US$170 million, including a $60-million relocation fee that will be split by the rest of the owners. The Thrashers are the fifth NHL team to move since Gary Bettman became the league’s commissioner in 1993.

“Obviously, everybody is sorry and distressed and unhappy that we found ourselves in the circumstance where our franchise was leaving Atlanta,” Bettman said. “We’re particularly sorry for the fans that are there, but obviously based on the reception that we’ve gotten, everybody is extremely excited about the opportunities in Winnipeg for our return.”

Following the Flames, who moved to Calgary 31 years ago, the Thrashers are the second NHL team to leave Atlanta. Those clubs are also the last two teams to relocate to Canada.

Seven of the league’s 30 teams reside north of the border.

The NHL is giving up an American market that has more than five million people in the metro Atlanta area and heading to Winnipeg, which will be the league’s smallest market with the smallest arena.

The team will play in the 15,015-seat MTS Center, but in a wave of enthusiasm, the club sold-out 13,000 season tickets in a matter of minutes earlier this month once they were made available to the public days after the sale and relocation were announced.

The Thrashers made the playoffs only once after joining the NHL for the 1999-2000 season, but that post-season appearance in 2007 resulted in a four-game sweep against the New York Rangers. The Thrashers had only one season in which they won more games than they lost; now they will be a footnote in hockey history.

Although the Winnipeg franchise has yet to pick a name for the team, it will not be the Thrashers. The club will bear no resemblance to the one that briefly called Atlanta home.

Waddell, general manager Rick Dudley and coach Craig Ramsay won’t make the move to Manitoba. Dudley completed just one year of a four-year deal after he replaced Waddell, and Ramsay was one year into a two-year contract. Waddell was the Thrashers’ original general manager, serving from 1999 until 2010.

The Thrashers’ ownership dealt with major financial problems and declining attendance in recent years. The team had the league’s third-worst attendance last season, averaging fewer than 14,000 a game.

Winnipeg had set its sights on the troubled Phoenix Coyotes, hoping to bring back the former Jets, but that team was saved last month for at least another season in the desert after the city of Glendale, Ariz. — where the club’s arena is located — voted to subsidize the team as it seeks a new owner.

Canadian billionaire David Thomson, who heads the Winnipeg ownership group along with Chipman, went hard after an NHL team when the Coyotes and the Thrashers fell into serious financial trouble.

The Coyotes are owned by the NHL and likely would have returned to Winnipeg if Glendale hadn’t agreed to provide a $25 million subsidy for this year, then approved another for the 2011-12 season while the team tries to complete an agreement with a prospective new owner.

That kind of deal was never an option for Atlanta.

“People are pretty excited about putting a team back in Winnipeg,” Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. “There are some challenges in the market, but I think everyone is pretty comfortable that everyone can and will meet those challenges.

“It’s nice to have Winnipeg back in the big show. It’s not a slam dunk. Everyone in Winnipeg has to support this team.”