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NHL board of governors confirms Winnipeg team

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It's official. The NHL's other 29 owners have confirmed Winnipeg's return to the league after 15 years.

The league's board of governors convened Tuesday in New York and approved the transfer of ownership of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg's True North Sports and Entertainment. The board also gave its blessing to the immediate relocation of the franchise to the Manitoba capital for the start of the 2011-12 season.

"We are very honored by the NHL Board of Governors unanimous decision today," True North chairman Mark Chipman said in a statement. "We know that the fans of this province have an appetite for NHL hockey that is rivaled by few in the league and intend to work very hard to make Manitobans proud of our franchise for years to come."

With the announcement, the NHL and the Winnipeg franchise launched the as-yet-unnamed team's official website, winnipeg.nhl.com.

Friday's and Saturday's annual NHL entry draft in St. Paul, Minn., will be the organization's first full official NHL function.

The NHL also announced today what's been known for a while, that the Winnipeg club will compete in the league's Southeast Division for its first season, then switch to the Western Conference.

It will allow the league some time to straighten out its preference for which team should switch from west to east.

After the conclusion of Tuesday's meeting, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league regretted having to leave a market, in this case Atlanta.

"We deeply regret that Atlanta's ownership was unable to secure local partners after exhausting every option and alternative," Bettman said.

"At the same time, we are delighted that NHL hockey is returning to Winnipeg and to a fan base that already is showing so much support for its team. We congratulate Mark Chipman, David Thomson and True North on their patience, their preparation and their professionalism, and we look forward to the start of a new era for the franchise."

The Winnipeg franchise sold 13,000 season tickets in less than 72 hours, starting the day after the agreement for the sale of the team was announced on May 31.

Winnipeg had been without an NHL team since 1996, when the Jets were sold and packed up to Phoenix.

The vote marks the NHL's first relocation in 14 years. Hartford moved to Carolina in 1997.

There was a different emotion in Atlanta Tuesday.

"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."

Following the Flames, who moved to Calgary 31 years ago, the Thrashers are the second NHL team to leave Atlanta. Those clubs are also the last two teams to relocate to Canada.

Seven of the league's 30 teams reside north of the border.

The NHL is giving up an American market that has more than five million people in the metro Atlanta area and heading to Winnipeg, which will be the league's smallest market with the smallest arena.

The Thrashers made the playoffs only once after joining the NHL for the 1999-2000 season, but that post-season appearance in 2007 resulted in a four-game sweep against the New York Rangers. The Thrashers had only one season in which they won more games than they lost; now they will be a footnote in hockey history.

Although the Winnipeg franchise has yet to pick a name for the team, it will not be the Thrashers. The club will bear no resemblance to the one that briefly called Atlanta home.

Waddell, general manager Rick Dudley and coach Craig Ramsay won't make the move to Manitoba. Dudley completed just one year of a four-year deal after he replaced Waddell, and Ramsay was one year into a two-year contract. Waddell was the Thrashers' original general manager, serving from 1999 until 2010.

The Thrashers' ownership dealt with major financial problems and declining attendance in recent years. The team had the league's third-worst attendance last season, averaging fewer than 14,000 a game.

Also at Tuesday's meeting, the NHL's owners approved changes to two rules to toughen up the standard on boarding and checking to the head, to offer some more protection for defenseless players who are so hit.

The rule changes have been thoroughly debated and were previously recommended by the league's general managers. They will come into effect this fall.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at 3:00 PM CDT: Added quotes from Mark Chipman

3:13 PM: Updated with full write-through, quotes from Bettman

3:23 PM: Updated story, including website

11:09 PM: Adds details and quotes throughout

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