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NHL deputy commissioner responds to Thrasher relocation talk

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There are major questions in regards to a relocation sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg's True North Sports and Entertainment — and one appears to have been answered by the NHL on Thursday.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly talked to Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution on the future of the Thrashers in Atlanta and left little doubt the league's position will be to stand back and watch.

Daly would not guarantee the Thrashers would be in Atlanta next season and he stated the league's efforts in Georgia were "consistent," with what the league has done in other trouble spots.

Daly was contacted by the Free Press to verify his comments and replied with the following email: "I would say there are some gaps and some quotes out of context, but it's generally consistent with the interview I gave," wrote Daly.

True North has been actively pursuing an NHL franchise and last spring made an offer to buy the Phoenix Coyotes. The Thrashers are owned by seven owners known as the Atlanta Spirit Group and have been for sale for several years.

This spring, part-owner Michael Gearon Jr., labelled the group's pursuit of a sale as "urgent."

Still categorized as unknowns are ASG's willingness to sell to a group for relocation and, should the two groups get together, their ability to close a sale in time for the team to be moved to Winnipeg in time for the 2011-12 season.

Here are some excerpts from Daly's interview with Schultz.

Q: Where do we stand with the Thrashers?

A: "That’s more a question for [part-owner] Bruce [Levenson} than it is for me. He’s the one working on trying to find new ownership for the franchise. We’ve been working with him closely for a number of years in efforts to sell the franchise. Those efforts are ongoing. But there is nothing that has made sense to this point."

Q: Can you guarantee the team will be in Atlanta next season?

A: "Nope. I can’t guarantee that."

Q: So what are the chances of the Thrashers being relocated?

A: "I’m not into handicapping. I’m usually wrong."

Q: Can you address rumors that a franchise sale and a move to Winnipeg is pretty much done and that an announcement is imminent?

A: "There is nothing that has been done, nothing has been planned and nothing has been scheduled. Certainly, no transaction has been agreed to, not that I’m aware of."

Q: Have the Thrashers had negotiations with True North?

A: "I wouldn’t comment on that. That’s something you would have to ask the Thrashers about."

Q: That’s not exactly a denial.

A: "But I would say the same thing even if I knew for a fact that they had not spoken to somebody. It’s not my role to publicly talk to the media about who Bruce Levenson might or might not be talking to."

Q: You and commissioner Gary Bettman both made frequent trips to Phoenix to speak publicly about the Coyotes staying there, but there has been no similar efforts in Atlanta. Why not?

A: "The situations are very different from a host of perspectives, but not the least of which are the bankruptcy issues we had [in Phoenix], the fight in bankruptcy court and the league having to purchase the club. There were a unique set of circumstances that required the league’s presence in Glendale. The bottom line is, we owned that club."

Q: I understand that. But does that preclude you or Gary from coming to Atlanta to show support for the franchise and help the process?

A: "No, of course not. If there was some reasonable sense that a public appeal would move the process along, then something would be done. But we’re not at that point."

Q: Can you understand why Atlanta hockey fans might feel like the NHL is abandoning them, especially given the league’s silence?

A: "Again, what that opinion lacks is any real information as to what we have been doing over a number of years. There have been efforts to sell the club. We feel it is best that franchises not be relocated and we’ve made a commitment to keep franchises in the marketplace. Everything we’ve done with the Thrashers is consistent with that."

Q: But not to the point of guaranteeing that they will remain in Atlanta?

A: "Correct."

Q: You don’t find that response in conflict with Gary saying that the NHL is committed to cities and has a covenant with fans?

A: "No, because as I just tried to explain, nobody really knows exactly what we’ve been doing. Good for us. But over a course of years, what we’ve done for the Thrashers franchise has been very consistent with what we’ve done for other franchises."

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