NHL Approves Atlanta Thrashers’ Move to Winnipeg, New Team Name Unresolved

The National Hockey League is returning to Winnipeg.

The league’s board of governors voted today in New York to approve the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, Manitoba- based True North Sports & Entertainment, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. The team, whose new name hasn’t been announced, will play in Winnipeg starting with the 2011-12 season.

Bettman declined to comment on the financial details of the sale, which was announced last month. The Hockey News reported on May 20 that the price would be $110 million, with the NHL receiving at least another $60 million as part of a relocation fee. The True North deal received more than the 50 percent vote among the 30 NHL teams necessary to approve relocation and the 75 percent needed to change ownership.

“Everybody is sorry that we found ourselves in a circumstance where our franchise was leaving Atlanta,” Bettman said in a news conference after the meeting. “Based on the reception that we’ve gotten, everybody is extremely excited about the opportunities in Winnipeg.”

The board also approved the league budget and a rule change regarding penalization for hits to the head and boarding. Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton missed the final four games of the Stanley Cup Final after sustaining a concussion on an illegal hit from Vancouver Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome. Rome was suspended for the remainder of the series.

Hits to Head

“Anywhere on the ice, coming from any direction, if you target the head and make the head the principle point of contact, you will be subject to a two-minute penalty on the ice,” league Vice President for Player Safety and Hockey Operations Brendan Shanahan, an eight-time All-Star and three-time Stanley Cup winner, said in a news conference. “You will also be subject to supplemental discipline as well.”

Winnipeg lost its previous NHL team, the Jets, when the franchise moved to Arizona in 1996 and became the Phoenix Coyotes.

Season tickets for the new team went on sale to the public on June 4. The required 13,000 season tickets were sold to existing minor-league patrons and new buyers within 72 hours, according to the Winnipeg Free Press. The waiting list was capped at 8,000 soon after that.

Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke said that, though there was no skepticism during the discussions about Winnipeg’s ability to support an NHL franchise, the league’s smallest market would need to sustain those ticket sales beyond the immediate excitement.

Smallest Market

“There are challenges in that market, it’s that simple,” Burke told reporters. “They could have sold the building out three times, but that’s the first five years, that’s the easy part.”

A name for the new team, which has the No. 7 pick in the NHL Draft this week, wasn’t discussed, New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello said. Suggestions include the Jets and the Manitoba Falcons, in honor of the Winnipeg Falcons, who won Canada’s first Olympic hockey gold medal in 1920. An online petition calling for the team to regain the Jets nickname has gathered more than 13,500 signatures.

MTS Centre

The 15,000-seat MTS Centre, the future home of the franchise, will retain its name after MTS Allstream Inc., a local telecommunications company, and True North announced an extension of their sponsorship agreement last week. Financial details of the 10-year extension, announced on the arena’s website, weren’t released.

“We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn’t left in 1996,” Bettman said May 31 at a news conference in Winnipeg following the announcement of the sale.

True North is headed by David Thomson, chairman of financial news and information provider Thomson Reuters Corp. (TRI) Thomson was ranked 24th on Forbes magazine’s 2009 list of the world’s richest people, with an estimated net worth of $13 billion.

In a May 31 letter to fans posted on the Thrashers’ website, team owners Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon Jr. said that they had been seeking a buyer or partner and had tried to keep the team in Atlanta.

Attendance Woes

“After extensive effort, nobody has come forward,” Levenson and Gearon wrote. “As a result, we had no choice but to explore the investment option presented to us by the NHL in the form of True North.”

The Thrashers averaged 13,649 fans per game last season, 28th of the league’s 30 teams, according to NHL figures, down from a high of 17,205 in the club’s 1999-2000 inaugural season. A franchise-low 8,461 fans attended the Thrashers’ Nov. 4 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“We’ve been through the emotions and the frustrations the last few weeks but when I look back -- and I have been there 13 years -- it’s been a great run,” Thrashers President Don Waddell, who has announced he will not be staying with the team, told reporters. “The franchise is in very good hands.”

The Thrashers compiled a record of 342 wins, 437 losses, 45 ties and 78 overtime losses, an average of fewer than 32 wins a season in their 11 years. The team qualified for the playoffs once, in 2007, when it was swept by the New York Rangers in the opening round.

Atlanta is the only city to lose two franchises since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1967. The Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary 31 years ago. Lamoriello said Atlanta’s second attempt at an NHL franchise did not bode well for the sport’s future in Georgia’s capital.

Seventh Canadian Team

“You never say never, but they certainly made every effort they possibly could to have it work and it didn’t work,” Lamoriello told reporters.

The new Winnipeg franchise will be the NHL’s seventh Canadian team, joining the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Eben Novy-Williams in New York at enovywilliam@bloomberg.net Lydia Winkler in New York at lwinkler1@bloomberg.net

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