NHL return inevitable: Winnipeg mayor

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz says a deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL to his city is inevitable.
Hockey fans celebrate at Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg after hearing an NHL team may return to the city. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz says a deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL to his city is inevitable.

"Do I think they're moving in the right direction? Yes. Have they got an understanding? Yes. Do they have it in black and white? No," Katz said Friday about his understanding of negotiations involving True North Sports and Entertainment in Winnipeg and the owners of the NHL franchise in Atlanta.

 "I do believe this will happen and it's long overdue," Katz added. "The Jets never should have left here."

The mayor said he believes there is enough support in the city to make an NHL franchise viable.

"There is no doubt that the fan base is there," he said. "The corporate support is there."

Katz joined a rising crest of optimism in the city that lost the Winnipeg Jets about 15 years ago.

"This will happen," Hockey Night in Canada's Jeff Marek told CBC's Nancy Wilson on Friday, who asked if there was a sense a deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg was imminent.

"There is a framework of a deal that is in place. We're marching towards this inevitability."

Katz said people in Winnipeg have been through a "roller-coaster" in the last 2½ years as speculation swirled over the possible move of the Phoenix Coyotes.

"Three weeks ago, I actually came out and publicly said that I do not believe the Phoenix Coyotes are coming here and the reason I did that is because every hour I was getting a phone call saying, 'Are you going to the announcement at Portage and Main?'

"I kept on saying, 'There is no announcement.'

"But this time it's extremely real and I can hardly wait until, you know, the ink is dry and the NHL and True North make the announcement."

A spokesman for True North, which would house the franchise if it makes the move, categorically denied the accuracy of a newspaper report that said a deal had been reached involving the Thrashers. 

Winnipeg Jets' Iain Fraser, left, celebrates an empty-net goal by Alexei Zhamnov against the Detroit Red Wings in Detroit on April 26, 1996, the last season for the Jets in Winnipeg. ((Tom Pidgeon/Associated Press))

However, Scott Brown said the company would not release a statement Friday, adding that negotiations with the Thrashers owners in Atlanta were continuing and the deal was not done.

Curt Keilback, the former voice of the Jets as the team's play-by-play man, said fans are too optimistic about a deal to be sidetracked from their celebrations.

"I know it's not a done deal but, you know, people here are tired of hearing it's not a done deal," he said.

"We've been teased by this for three or four years. So I think all of us are just saying, 'You know what, it's happening, let's just believe it's happening. Let's keep the faith. Let's go out and celebrate and have a good time and welcome the boys home.'"

Team left 15 years ago

It has been 15 years since the team packed up after the 1996 season and headed to Phoenix. Fans in Winnipeg have been lamenting the loss and hoping for another NHL team ever since.

Speculation has been rampant in the past two years that the NHL might return after the Coyotes began running into serious financial troubles.

That speculation peaked over the past few months but after Glendale city council voted earlier this month to foot a $25-million US bill to cover the Coyotes' losses for next season — essentially keeping the franchise in limbo for one more year — the focus quickly turned to the equally troubled Thrashers.

On Monday, reports surfaced that the Thrashers owners and True North were in negotiations for a sale.

The Thrashers sale price is expected to be around $170 million US, with $70 million of that going to the league for a relocation fee, according to a source.

True North, led by businessman Mark Chipman and billionaire David Thomson, owns and operates the Manitoba Moose of the AHL and Winnipeg's MTS Centre.

Fans wearing Jets jerseys cheer at the women's preliminary round hockey game between Canada and Sweden at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. ((Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press))

According to Marek, "the NHL has already OK'd the two sides getting together and a relocation to Winnipeg. The NHL has drawn up two different schedules — one is a contingency for Atlanta staying in the National Hockey League and the other is the contingency for the Winnipeg organization.

"The only issue that has to get solved, and it won't get solved this season, is what division does this new Winnipeg team play in?

"Probably for the first season, they will play in the southeast division. It doesn't work perfectly, but it's too late in the game right now to realign everyone in the NHL. But look for that to happen a year out."

Fans celebrate on street

Police estimate about 400 people celebrated at Winnipeg's famous downtown corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street in the hours following a report by the Globe and Mail that a deal had been completed.

Hockey fans at Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg express support for an NHL team. ((John Woods/Canadian Press))

Earlier reports said about 100 fans showed up but the crowd quickly grew through the early hours on Friday, police said.

The celebration will increase substantially if there is an announcement making the NHL's return official, Keilback said.

"This town was definitely missing the Winnipeg Jets," Keilback said. "It was like a son who left to go to war overseas and you weren't sure if he was ever going to come back. Whether he was still alive.

"Finally, he is coming back. He will be welcomed with open arms, and people are going to pour out."

Times change

Katz, Marek and Keilback all said Winnipeg has much more going for it, in terms of supporting a team, than it had in 1996 when the Jets departed.

"There is much more of a corporate base there right now," said Marek. "A lot of head offices are headlined in Winnipeg and the fan base again is rejuvenated, and they've demonstrated through [support for] the Manitoba Moose … that they are hungry and eager and willing to pay money — and it will be top dollar in Winnipeg for NHL hockey."

Katz said True North is a group of "very astute" business people that will manage a team extremely well.

"They've got a business plan. They know the revenue that is required to make this work, and they've done their homework," he said.

"People have to understand that when the Jets left here, it was nothing to do whatsoever with the fan base. The Jets left here because we could not get the agreement from the powers-that-be at the time for a new arena.

"Well guess what? We have one of the top arenas in North America — one of the busiest right now. So that was the missing link. It's there now.

"And the corporate support is unbelievable here. Winnipeg, just last fall, was voted one of the best places to invest in Canada.

"It's a different city than it was 15 years ago."

Added Keilback: "Everything has come together at the right time."

Name matters

Since the first rumours of a possible Phoenix Coyotes move surfaced, there has been much discussion about what a possible Winnipeg team would be named.

That discussion has taken on a renewed interest in the firelight of the Thrashers speculation.

"I grew up with the Winnipeg Jets. I was there when we basically stole Bobby Hull from the Chicago Blackhawks and I was there when Ben Hatskin [Jets founder] handed him a cheque at Portage and Main at the big signing," said Katz.

"So yes, I love the name, the Winnipeg Jets, but you know what? I can assure yours truly and everybody else will be out there getting season tickets, regardless of what the name is."

That sentiment was echoed by Keilback, though he was more hopeful the Jets moniker would return.

"They could call then the Moose Factory Earwigs and people would be just as excited to have them come back," he said.

"But there is something to the name, Winnipeg Jets. I think if you don't keep the name, Jets, you are throwing away an awful lot of what had been accomplished.

"People overseas became Jets fans because the European [player] invasion began here. The first team to beat the Russians was the Winnipeg Jets.

"Teemu Selanne, when he set his rookie record, was a Winnipeg Jet. He wasn't a Falcon or Moose or anything like that.

"It's a huge name. I certainly hope they keep it."

With files from The Canadian Press