Five thousand, five hundred and 10 dark days since the Winnipeg Jets headed south, the NHL is back!
Winnipeg will play in the big league again -- 15 years after the Jets left town to become the Phoenix Coyotes. Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports & Entertainment, announced a conditional deal Tuesday to buy the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers and move them to the Manitoba capital.
The franchise is now the seventh NHL club based in Canada.
"I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers," Chipman, flanked by principal partner David Thomson, True North president Jim Ludlow and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger, said at a press conference at the MTS Centre.
"In a sense, you could say True North, our city and our province have received the call we've long been waiting for."
The reported $170-million transaction and franchise relocation is subject to the NHL board of governors' approval, expected to come June 21 in New York.
True North, the Atlanta Spirit Group -- which owned the Thrashers -- and the NHL worked into the early hours Tuesday before buttoning down the agreement.
"If we didn't get this done (Tuesday), I think there was a good chance this wasn't getting done," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who revealed the parties were on a conference call at 3:30 a.m. without a done deal.
"We were really out of time."
Once True North's deal with the ASG was complete early Tuesday, Bettman and several league executives, including deputy commissioner Bill Daly, hopped on a jet and flew to Winnipeg for the announcement.
And when the good news was finally delivered, thousands of hockey fans gathered downtown -- splitting their time between Portage and Main and The Forks -- to celebrate the return of the NHL to Winnipeg.
They cheered as Chipman made it official at about 11:15 a.m. on a large video screen set up under the canopy at The Forks -- and jeered as Bettman said, "We don't like to move franchises... but sometimes we have no choice, like in 1996," when it was his turn at the microphone.
Offices and classrooms across the city and province tuned in to websites, TV and radio to catch the big news live.
They even halted the University of Manitoba convocation ceremony to watch the press conference.
Despite the driving rain and wind, Winnipeggers began a party that lasted until the wee hours of this morning.
When the announcement was made, police closed Portage and Main to traffic, and it remained closed until about 2 p.m. At the peak of the party at the famous corner, there were about 1,000 revellers kibitzing about ticket prices and possible team names, sneaking the odd beer or bottle of champagne and looking for any excuse to shout another chorus of "Go Jets Go!"
However, Chipman said a decision on the name for the new team hasn't been made.
The NHL still owns the Jets name and Bettman said True North's purchase will include it, if requested, at no charge.
Bettman said he was happy to be in Winnipeg to correct a past wrong.
"It's something we value tremendously," Bettman said.
"The opportunity to come back here, to bring a franchise back to Canada, which we know is the heart and soul of our game, is vitally important to us, and it's something we're proud to do when the circumstances presented themselves.
"It is clear times have changed for Winnipeg as an NHL market and this is a wonderful time to add a club to Canada."
The commissioner confirmed that the new Winnipeg franchise will play in the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division for one year before moving to the Western Conference.
The transaction comes with one other urgent condition, an undertaking to sell 13,000 season tickets that begins today. Details can be found at www.driveto13.com
Chipman said the requirement was not imposed upon him or Winnipeg, and Bettman confirmed the ticket campaign was True North's idea.
Chipman said the number is both "necessary and achievable."
Added Bettman: "To be candid, this isn't going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night."
Specific seat selection will not occur during the initial drive. Fans will only be committing to the number of seats and the price category. Seat selection will occur after the successful completion of the drive to 13,000.
Package prices, per game, range from $39 to $129 -- a total of $1,755 to $5,805 per season.
Bettman also acknowledged the disappointment for fans in Atlanta.
"To our fans in Atlanta," he said, "we are not happy about leaving Atlanta. Please be assured it was never about whether Winnipeg is better than Atlanta. This was an Atlanta problem that couldn't be solved for Atlanta."
Chipman said his top priority now will be to address the situation of the hockey department of the Thrashers -- who will stay with the franchise and who will not.
with files from Kevin Rollason