Winnipeg cheers return of NHL
'It's a fantastic day for the city,' says Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz
A deal has been reached to bring a National Hockey League team back to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996.
A deal to move the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers to the Manitoba capital was announced Tuesday at press conference at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg.
The team will play in the 2011-12 season.
"Today, on behalf of my family, our partner David Thomson, and our entire organization, I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers," said Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd.
As soon as the announcement was made by Chipman, thousands of fans shouted, cheered, clapped, whistled, popped champagne and sang the Stompin' Tom Connors anthem The Hockey Song at two main party places in the city: the famous intersection of Portage and Main, and The Forks marketplace.
Portage and Main was shut down to traffic for a couple of hours as an estimated 1,000 people gathered there.
"NHL, welcome home. It's great to have you back here, it's great to have you back here where you belong," said a beaming Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger at the press conference.
"We missed you and we're going to make it work forever now that you're back."
The sale price was not released, however numerous reports leading up to the announcement have pegged it at $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee.
"It's a fantastic day for the city and I'm hoping, you know, for decades on, everybody will get to experience the NHL and the economic impact and the wonderful pride that comes with being a city that has the best of the best," said Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz.
While the NHL's return will have obvious economic benefits, that's not all it offers, he said.
"One thing that you can't measure is the feeling, the wonderful feeling that Winnipeggers and Manitobans will have today with the return of the NHL after a 15-year absence," Katz said.
Winnipeg has been without NHL hockey since the Jets moved to Phoenix and were renamed the Coyotes in 1996.
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"In the spring of 1995, I was very fortunate to become closely involved in community efforts to save the NHL team. I came away from that experience with a deep sense of disappointment, but also the realization that our lack of success was not anyone's fault," Chipman said at the press conference.
"Rather, after 17 years [of hockey in Winnipeg], the economics of our city and the NHL were no longer compatible."
But all of that has changed now, with a stronger Canadian dollar, a new arena, a booming Manitoba economy and an NHL salary cap, say those involved in the deal and others, like Katz and Selinger.
"It is clear that times have changed for Winnipeg as an NHL market. And this is a wonderful time to add a club to Canada," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
"As we have said repeatedly, we don't like to move franchises. But sometimes, even if it has been 14 years since the last time we moved a franchise, sometimes we simply have no choice as was the case back in '96 when the Jets left Winnipeg.
"So to be able to come back to, if you will, right a wrong, that's always an extraordinary thing. It's nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years."
Former Jets centreman Thomas Steen, ranked in a 2005 article in the National Post as the second-greatest player in the history of the franchise, after Dale Hawerchuk, was beaming from ear-to-ear at the news.
"It's been a long time since I've felt this joy, that's for sure. Today, I'm just going to enjoy."
Chipman cautioned that even though the deal has been completed, it must still receive approval from the NHL board of governors. That could come at a June 21 meeting.
"Our spirit is back," said Braden Hill, decked out in a Jets jersey and hockey helmet, a Canadian flag draped on his back like a cape.
"Our city lost it 15 years ago. Now it's back."
Fan Jason Loewen said the Jets' 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."
Canadian billionaire David Thomson, co-owner of the new team, travelled to Winnipeg from Toronto on Tuesday morning, as did Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
True North has been in negotiations with Atlanta Spirit, the owners of the Thrashers, for a number of weeks.
Bettman said the ink is still drying, noting negotiations were still ongoing as of 4:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday.
Organizers said ticket prices will range from $39 to $129 per game, and a drive to sell 13,000 season tickets would start this week.
"Selling 13,000 season tickets will send a message to the NHL board of governors," Bettman said. "And, to be candid, this isn't going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night."
Congratulations from PM
Immediately following the announcement, a statement was issued by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"Today is a historic day for Canada’s game. On behalf of all Canadians, I am extremely pleased with today’s announcement that the NHL will return to Winnipeg," he said.
Despite a heartfelt "Save Our Jets" campaign in 1996, the Winnipeg team was sold and sent southwest to Phoenix. What changed in Winnipeg between then and now?
"Hockey is Canada’s great passion and I’m excited that Winnipeg will reclaim its special role in our country’s national pastime.
"Memories of legendary Winnipeg Jets’ players such as Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk and Teemu Selanne remain fresh in the minds of all Canadians.
"The moments created by these players were inspirations to generations of young hockey players across Canada and I know that the new team will inspire countless young Canadians to put on their skates and carry on Canada’s proud hockey legacy."
No name yet
A name has not been chosen yet, Chipman said.
The focus has been on the purchase of the team, but one of the first orders of business will be deciding on a name, he said.
On Tuesday, the logo for the American Hockey league's Manitoba Moose at MTS Centre was covered up by a True North sign. The Moose, the farm team for the Vancouver Canucks, is owned by True North.
Chipman had talked about keeping the name because he had built up the brand over the years. He acquired the team in 1996 and moved it from Minnesota.
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.
As well, #gojetsgo was the dominating hashtag on Twitter as hockey lovers cheered the news.
Chants of "Go Jets, go" have also been shouted in the city throughout the past couple of weeks as excitement built with news of the negotiations. The chants even washed through a concert by U2 in Winnipeg on Sunday.
And they continued, louder, on Tuesday as fans hugged and played impromptu games of road hockey at Portage and Main as well as at The Forks.
Curt Keilback, the former voice of the Jets as the team's play-by-play man, also has his vote in for 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 Bettman told Rogers Sportsnet the league would make it available if True North wants to use it.
A long wait
It's been a long wait for Winnipeg hockey fans.
Jet diehards kept the spirit of the team alive on websites and chatrooms, lobbying for a team and keeping track of Jets alumni like Bobby Hull, Steen and Hawerchuk.
Earlier this year, it appeared Winnipeg was about to get its own 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. The Atlanta-based team took to the ice as an expansion team in 1999, part of a rapid league expansion at the end of the last century to capture the elusive Sun Belt market.
But the Thrashers made the playoffs just once, losing in four straight games to the New York Rangers in the first round in 2007.
Many nights the Thrashers played in front of a number of empty seats at Philips Arena, located downtown beside CNN headquarters and the Centennial Olympic Plaza.
The Thrashers are the second NHL franchise to leave Atlanta, which relinquished the Flames to Calgary in 1980.
The NHL was unable to find an owner who wants to keep the team in Atlanta. The Thrashers finished 25th in the 30-team league with a 34-36-12 record and missed the playoffs last season.
"This is not the outcome we wanted and it's extremely disappointing that a buyer or significant investor did not come forward that would enable us to keep the team in Atlanta," Thrashers co-owner Bruce Levenson said in a statement.
The MTS Centre, owned by True North, opened in 2004 with the Moose as its anchor tenant. The 15,000-seat facility cost $133.5 million to build, including $40.5 million in public money.
The arena is small by NHL standards with 15,015 seats — that's 1,159 fewer than Nassau Coliseum, where the New York Islanders play.
Peter Stoykewych, 18, a Winnipegger who was drafted in 2010 by the Thrashers and remains a team prospect is excited by the chance to play in front of friends and family much of the year.
"For me, not many athletes get to play in their home town in their entire life, let alone the possibility of playing here on a nightly basis, so it's definitely exciting for me and my family as well," said the St. John's-Ravenscourt alumnus.
Season ticket drive
- The drive for 13,000 NHL season tickets will launch Wednesday at 1 p.m. CT and will include a three-day priority pre-sale available only to the approximately 2,000 Moose season ticket-holders, as well as corporate partners.
- Season tickets will go on sale to the general public on Saturday, June 4, at noon CT.
- All information on season tickets can be found at the Drive to 13 website.