WINNIPEG - It's just "a matter of time" before a deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg is finalized and announced, the city's mayor said Friday.
Mayor Sam Katz said the deal to bring an NHL team back to Winnipeg is going to happen. There is an understanding the deal will move forward but nothing is signed, sealed and delivered yet, he said.
Katz said he's been in touch with Winnipeg's True North Sports and Entertainment, the company negotiating the sale, and has been told there is nothing official—yet.
"I do believe this will happen and it's long overdue," Katz said in an interview. "The Jets never should have left here . . . After 15 years, we'll all be ecstatic to have them back. There is no doubt that the fan base is there. The corporate support is there."
True North Sports and Entertainment has been quietly negotiating with the Atlanta Thrashers about moving the team north of the border. Despite a report Thursday night that a deal is done, both the NHL and True North have said nothing has been decided yet.
"I think Tuesday could be an interesting day," hinted Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger. "I think we should all keep our powder dry and see how it goes. But the reality is that until the deal is done, nobody is making any comments. We've always taken a prudent approach on this and anything that is finalized, you'll be among the first to know."
Those cautionary words and tight-lipped denials haven't stopped Winnipeg hockey fans from celebrating.
Excitement about the return of NHL hockey is growing in the city with fans now buzzing about what the team should be called and wondering how soon they can buy tickets. Some fans took to the streets late Thursday night, waving Jets jerseys—still a best-seller in the city—and cheering "Go, Jets, Go!"
Winnipeg lost its beloved Jets in 1996 when the team moved to Phoenix because of financial problems. Since then, Winnipeg has built a new arena—the MTS centre—and has argued it can support an NHL franchise once again.
"This is a very different Winnipeg than it was 15 years ago," Katz said.
Seeing an NHL team play on Winnipeg ice once again would have special meaning for Thomas Steen. He played for the Winnipeg Jets for 14 years and is now a city councillor. Steen broke down crying when it was announced in 1995 that the money-losing Jets were leaving Winnipeg.
Like some other skeptical fans, Steen said he's trying not to get his hopes up until the deal is official.
"We've been close before," he said. "I'm trying not to get too excited but of course, I'm excited. It sounds for real this time."
At the 4Play sports bar across from Winnipeg's MTS Centre, co-owner Oreanna Cheater said the excitement is palpable. The return of the Jets is all anyone is talking about.
"It's been an up-and-down roller-coaster but I'm very, very excited about it. I think it's for sure this time, it's actually going to happen," she said. "I don't think my son slept a wink last night. He is unbelievably excited."
Cheater believes Winnipeg fans will show their loyalty.
"When something is taken away from you, it opens your eyes and you say 'Oh, oh. We weren't doing our jobs'," she said.
David Kehler shared season tickets to the Jets with his grandfather before the team left the city. Their departure was "devastating" and Kehler said he can't wait to watch an NHL team on home ice again.
"I'm just waiting for that call to put a deposit down on a season ticket," said Kehler, who has started an online petition calling for the prospective Winnipeg team to be called the Jets. "It seems like it's just inevitable at this point."