WINNIPEG – The National Hockey League officially came home to Manitoba on Tuesday and was greeted by thousands of fans in red, white and blue Winnipeg Jets jerseys, cheering, waving flags and playing impromptu games of street hockey.
“Our spirit is back!” said Braden Hill, decked out in a jersey and hockey helmet, a Canadian flag draped over his back like a cape.
“Our city lost it 15 years ago. Now it’s back.”
Fan Jason Loewen said the team’s departure “was like part of our heart was taken out.”
“So now, it’s correcting a wrong. Hockey is a big part of life here.”
The party began after Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, confirmed what had been widely rumoured for two weeks: his company had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers franchise and was moving it to Winnipeg for the start of the 2011-12 season. It will be Canada’s seventh NHL team.
“I’m excited beyond words,” Chipman, whose group includes Canadian billionaire David Thomson, told a news conference.
Chipman said no decision has been made about a name for the team. He said talks on the deal continued until the last minute, so there wasn’t much time to think about that.
“We know it’s a subject of great interest to the community,” he said. “It’s obviously one of our first orders of business.”
The Jets name appears to be the overwhelming fan favourite. It was the name of the team when it was the flagship franchise in the World Hockey Association in the 1970s and it was kept when the team joined the NHL in 1979.
The NHL owns the rights to the Jets name, but Bettman told Rogers Sportsnet the league would make it available if True North wants to use it.
Andrew Ladd, captain of the Thrashers, said he votes for Jets.
“For me, I think the old school jerseys and the name Jets is pretty cool,” he said in an interview from Maple Ridge, B.C.
“It would be fun to be a part of that again.”
Ladd said the change is for the better.
“I think everyone wants to be able to play in Canada where they just have that passion for the game,” he said.
“You can definitely thrive on it and use it to your advantage.”
Thrashers goalie Chris Mason agreed.
“Just the excitement, you can’t help but be enthralled with it. It’s contagious,” he said from Red Deer, Alta.
The purchase price was reported to be around $170 million. True North hasn’t released the exact figure, but president Jim Ludlow confirmed Tuesday that it was in that range. About one third of that—$60 million—will go to the NHL as a transfer fee.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the deal was up in the air just hours before the news conference.
“We, with others, were actually on a conference call at 4:30 this morning eastern time, and it (the deal) wasn’t done yet.”
Fans had been waiting for 15 years for the NHL to return. The franchise quit Winnipeg in 1996 and transferred to Phoenix to become the Coyotes.
The team at the time was strapped for money and was struggling to find local ownership with deep enough pockets to finance a new rink and pay spiralling player salaries to keep the team competitive.
Fans, however, blamed Bettman, believing he and NHL owners were secretly conspiring to move small-market Canadian teams to establish a league footprint in the U.S. Sun Belt.
“We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn’t left in 1996,” said Bettman.
“It’s clear that times have changed for Winnipeg as an NHL market and this is a wonderful time to add a club to Canada.”
The thousands of fans watching at The Forks, though, made it clear that not all bygones were bygones.
They booed Bettman when he appeared on the large screen TV in the plaza. They chanted “Bettman sucks! Bettman sucks!”
“We don’t like to move franchises, but sometimes … we simply have no choice, as was the case back in ’96 when the Jets left Winnipeg,” he said. He refused to speculate on whether another franchise might move north to Quebec City, which lost the Nordiques to Colorado just before the Jets left.
The as-yet nameless team will play in the MTS Centre, owned and operated by True North and currently home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, which is a lower-tier feeder system for the NHL. True North also owns the Moose franchise, which is part of the Vancouver Canucks farm system. Its future is up in the air.
The MTS Centre has 15,015 seats for hockey, which makes it the smallest venue in the league, with 1,159 fewer chairs than Nassau Coliseum, where the New York Islanders play. But unlike the old Winnipeg Arena, it has plush corporate boxes that bring in more revenue.
There is one more hurdle to clear. The other NHL owners are to meet in New York on June 21 to vote on the deal. A 75 per cent majority is required to approve a new owner and a simple majority is needed to approve a franchise relocation.
Both True North and the NHL made it clear they need to sell 13,000 tickets to show the league Winnipeg means business.
“It doesn’t work if this building isn’t full every night,” said Bettman.
Asked if NHL owners would approve the shift if fans don’t buy 13,000 season tickets, Bettman would only say: “I never like to engage in speculation.”
The season ticket drive begins Wednesday, the same day the NHL Stanley Cup final begins in Vancouver between the Canucks and the Boston Bruins.
True North is offering seven tiers of tickets ranging from $39 in the nosebleeds to $129 for the best seats in the house. That translates to $1,775 up to $5,805 for a season.
The average price is $82, which True North says is comparable to ticket prices in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa.
And while the new Winnipeg franchise may be coming off a mediocre season, it isn’t the worst team in Canada. Atlanta finished 25th in the 30-team league and missed the playoffs, but the Ottawa Senators were 26th and the Edmonton Oilers were dead last.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a rabid hockey fan, said the day was “historic for Canada’s game.”
“Memories of the legendary Winnipeg Jets players such as Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne remain fresh in the minds of Canadians,” he said in a statement.
Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger urged fans to rally around the team and purchase the needed tickets.
“NHL, welcome home,” said the premier. “It’s great to have you back where you belong.”
Earlier this year, it appeared Winnipeg was about to get its old franchise back, but last-minute subsidies and deal-making kept the red-ink-stained Coyotes in Arizona
But just as the Coyote door closed, the Thrasher one opened.
This is the second time pro hockey has failed in Dixie. The Atlanta Flames lasted eight years until moving in 1980 to become the Calgary Flames.
The Thrashers took to the ice as an expansion team in 1999, part of a rapid league expansion at the end of the last century.
The team, named for the Georgia state bird, left the nest and performed a face-plant. In 11 seasons over 12 years the blue-shirted men made the playoffs just once, losing in four straight to the New York Rangers in the first round in 2007.
Many nights the Thrashers played in front of great wastelands of empty chairs at futuristic Philips Arena, located downtown beside CNN headquarters and the Centennial Olympic Plaza.
The only time it made national news was, tragically, in the fall of 2003, when star forward Dany Heatley crashed his speeding Ferrari, killing passenger and teammate Dan Snyder. Heatley was sentenced to probation and community service, and now plays for the San Jose Sharks.
The team tried all kinds of stunts and gimmicks. There was the Blue Crew, a team of long-legged young girls in plunging necklines and short shorts, bending over shovels to groom the ice during TV timeouts.
In December, the team’s bird-headed mascot “stole” the rink’s Zamboni and led police, who were in on the stunt, on a low-speed chase down the highway. The mascot, Thrash, was “jailed” and wasn’t to be let go until fans bought 5,000 more tickets for that month.
None of it worked.
The team was sinking in debt and the ownership group, Atlanta Spirit, was beset by squabbles and lawsuits among its owners.
In fact, the litigation revealed the team has lost more than $150 million since 2005 and has been looking for a buyer for six years.
No local white knights surfaced. And while Winnipeg children broke their piggy banks to try to save the Jets in 1996, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed shrugged his shoulders last week, saying, “We will withstand (the Thrashers’ departure) just fine.”
The Thrasher website Tuesday carried a message from owners Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon who said they exhausted every option to keep the Thrashers in the Deep South.
“We want to express … gratitude to you, the fans, for the years of dedication,” they wrote.
Messages bouncing back to them on websites weren’t very understanding.
“Hope each and every one of you roast in hell,” wrote realfan99.