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Future of AHL's Manitoba Moose uncertain following NHL's return to Winnipeg

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WINNIPEG - It was a bittersweet day for the Manitoba Moose's Nolan Baumgartner.

The captain of the American Hockey League team had mixed emotions when he heard the official news the NHL is returning to Winnipeg.

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While he was happy for hockey fans and the owners of the new as-yet unnamed team, he knows his future will never be the same.

"For myself and my wife, we're a little sad because there's a very good chance I won't be playing hockey in Winnipeg next year," Baumgartner said from California, where he's vacationing.

The 35-year-old defenceman lives in Winnipeg and has played seven of his 15 pro seasons for the Moose. His contract with the Vancouver Canucks, the parent club of the Moose, is up and he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

He wants to continue playing somewhere next season.

"Obviously, getting an NHL deal would be awesome and I'd be honoured to play for the new team in Winnipeg if it came down to that and I got the chance to do it," Baumgartner said.

True North Sports and Entertainment, which bought the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday with plans to relocate the team to Winnipeg, also owns the Moose.

True North president Jim Ludlow said the Moose will become the AHL farm club of the new Winnipeg NHL team.

"There's always a relationship with a National Hockey League parent and an affiliate in terms of developing players," Ludlow said. "So we already own an AHL team and there would be no reason we would dispose of it."

Moose season-ticket, mini-pack holders and corporate sponsors have first dibs on season tickets for the new NHL team from Wednesday at 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday. Tickets go on sale to the general public on Saturday at noon.

Ludlow said those groups account for about 4,000 to 6,000 tickets.

But what the Moose will be called and where they'll be located is still up in the air.

Reports have suggested the team might move to St. John's, N.L., but the Newfoundland government has rejected St. John's Sports and Entertainment's request for a $500,000 annual subsidy.

After the NHL's Winnipeg Jets moved in 1996 to become the Phoenix Coyotes, True North bought the Minnesota Moose, moved and renamed them to play in the former International Hockey League. When that league folded, the Moose joined the AHL for the 2001-02 season and became the farm team of the Canucks.

Ludlow said there will be a connection between True North's AHL club and the Canucks, but how long that will last isn't known.

"Vancouver will continue to have a relationship with us in terms of development, and at the same time would be looking, I would guess, for a very specific development partner on a longer-term basis ..." Ludlow said.

"How that shapes out in the next month or two will be something our hockey operations people and the hockey operations people in Vancouver will continue to work through."

The Stanley Cup-finalist Canucks congratulated True North on its NHL acquisition, and in a statement said the team "look forward to a new relationship with True North and the city of Winnipeg as an NHL partner."

A number of former Moose players are taking part in Vancouver's playoff run, including Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows, backup goalie Cory Schneider and head coach Alain Vigneault, who coached Manitoba in 2005-06.

Neil Kearns, a Whistler resident, was in Winnipeg and wanted to get a memento for his son at the Moose team store.

"I'm a huge Vancouver Canucks fans so I'm going to buy my son a Manitoba Moose hockey jersey," he said. "It's a souvenir."

The Moose have been one of the AHL's most successful franchises. The club averaged 8,404 fans last season in the 30-team league, second to Hershey (9,800).

It also had the reputation of being run like an NHL club.

"Everybody that has played for the Moose has enjoyed their time," Baumgartner said.

"We're treated very well here. The (organization) treats every player like it would be an NHL team. It's the best organization that I've ever played for in the minor leagues."

The Moose lost last season's North Division final to the Hamilton Bulldogs in a triple-overtime Game 7. The deepest Manitoba has gone in the AHL playoffs was in 2008-09, when Hershey won the Calder Cup championship with a victory in Game 6.

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