NHL approves Winnipeg franchise

The NHL board of governors has unanimously approved the sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg for next season.
A Winnipeg hockey fan wears a painted goalie mask as he celebrates Winnipeg's NHL news on May 31. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

The NHL board of governors has unanimously approved the sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers 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. The vote by the board on Tuesday 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 $170 million US, 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.

True North announced May 31 that a deal had been struck with Atlanta Spirit, the then-owners of the Thrashers, to move the team to Winnipeg. It was subject to Tuesday's approval by the NHL governors.

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News of the tentative purchase in May sent crowds of cheering Winnipeg fans into the streets, where singing and impromptu games of road hockey broke out. The city's famous downtown intersection of Portage and Main was shut down to traffic as an estimated 1,000 people gathered there. About 1,000 more celebrated at The Forks marketplace.

Season ticket sell-out

True North then launched a season-ticket drive, hoping to sell 13,000 packages to prove fans' commitment to the team and send a strong message to the board of governors.

Those wanting the most expensive season tickets were required to commit for five years, while those looking for cheaper seats had to sign up for a three-year term.

After a pre-sale to season ticketholders of the Manitoba Moose — the American Hockey League team that was based in Winnipeg but now moving to St. John's — the NHL season ticket packages went on sale to the general public.

The 13,000 goal was reached in two minutes, with 15 more minutes needed to finish processing the sales.

Another 8,000 names were added to a waiting list, which could have been longer but was capped by True North.

No name yet

The next order of business is the announcement of the new team's name.

There were some expectations the name would be announced after the relocation vote, but that has not happened.

True North chairman Mark Chipman had talked about keeping the Moose name because he had built up the brand over the 15 years the AHL team had played in the city.

He acquired the team in 1996 and moved it from Minnesota, right after the NHL's Jets flew out of Winnipeg for Phoenix, becoming the Coyotes.

However, Winnipeg fans seem to be favouring the Jets name, going by the signs being waved and vintage jerseys being worn on the streets of the city Tuesday.

Curt Keilback, the former voice of the Jets as the team's play-by-play man, has also told CBC News he favours the Jets name. And he said there are many others, including members of the Jets alumni, who feel the same.

It was the name of the team when it was the flagship franchise in the World Hockey Association in the 1970s and the name it kept when it joined the NHL in 1979.

The NHL owns the rights to the Jets name, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told Rogers Sportsnet the league would make it available if True North wants to use it.

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said the new team name should certainly incorporate the word Winnipeg. "When you have any star entertainer, all night long you will hear Winnipeg, how ya doing? Winnipeg, it's great to be here. Those are just total facts, and it makes sense to be Winnipeg."

A man who creates names for a living believes the Jets should be readopted. Naseem Javed, founder of the NameBank, which came up with Telus, said there is a real science to finding names for sports teams, and Jets is a great choice.

"Based on rules of marketing and good branding, Jets is still the best name because it not only has history, but it is short, clean and very identifiable," he said.

If the club isn't ready to announce its name and logo before Friday's NHL draft in Minneapolis, the players drafted to play in Winnipeg will likely pull on a sweater that simply says NHL, said general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

True North spokesman Scott Brown said unveiling the name Friday at the draft is an "interesting possibility" if a decision on the name is made by then — but so far no final decision has been made.

History of the Jets

  • The Winnipeg Jets' inaugural year was 1972, when the team formed part of the now-defunct World Hockey Association (WHA).
  • The first player to sign on to the team was Norm Beaudin, known as "the original jet." Bobby Hull, a superstar player and the first high-profile acquisition, had the nickname "Golden Jet."
  • In their early years, the Jets led the way in recruiting European techniques and talent. The Jets are also remembered for being the first to defeat the elite Soviet National team in 1978. 
    Winnipeg Jets captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg carries the Avco World Trophy after the team won the 1979 WHA championship. ((Canadian Press))
  • The Jets were stars of the WHA, winning three Avco cups and besting Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the leagues final season.
  • They got their name from the Winnipeg Jets of the major junior Western Canada Hockey League. Ben Hatskin owned the junior team and took its name for the professional team.
  • Hatskin, who had played centre for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, declared his shifting sports allegiance in 1971, stating: "After today, hockey will be number one in Winnipeg, not football."
  • The junior team, who had the name Jets since 1967, became the Junior Jets before dropping the moniker entirely.
  • In 1979, the WHA Jets were purchased by Barry Shenkarow and absorbed into the NHL. 
  • The new league forced the Jets to give up its best players – a real game-changer: the Jets finished second-last in 1979-80 and dead last in 1980-81.
  • The team suffered serious financial woes in the 1990s. Despite a public outcry and public fundraiser that made $500,000, the Jets were relocated in 1996 and renamed the Phoenix Coyotes.
  • In a recent informal poll, about 63 per cent of respondents preferred Winnipeg Jets to a host of other potential names for the NHL team that is being moved to Winnipeg. The second most popular choice was Manitoba Jets.

With files from The Canadian Press