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NHL commissioner indicates Winnipeg must sellout MTS Centre for success

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The NHL is returning to Winnipeg with a hefty price tag attached to the franchise.

There was no glossing over the harsh financial reality of operating a team in the league as the estimated US$170-million sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers was announced on Tuesday.

Not only did True North Sports & Entertainment spend a significant amount of time detailing the price of tickets, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also made it clear that every one of them better be accounted for.

"It isn't going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night," said Bettman.

The 15,015-seat MTS Centre will be the smallest arena in the NHL and Winnipeg re-enters the league at a time when it has never been more expensive to do business.

The salary cap is expected to climb for a sixth straight season in 2011-12 and could reach more than $62 million. If that were to happen, every team would have to spend at least $46 million to reach the salary floor.

The Thrashers currently have $35.9 million tied up in 15 players for next season. There are seven pending restricted free agents — included captain Andrew Ladd and defenceman Zach Bogosian — and another three players eligible for unrestricted free agency.

All told, the payroll could exceed $50 million.

Decisions must also be made about the entire hockey operations staff, including general manager Rick Dudley. He signed a four-year contract extension in January but won't necessarily make the move north.

"We have got a lot of work to do," said Winnipeg co-owner Mark Chipman. "I have a very high regard for Rick, (but) haven't spoken to him and expect to do so very shortly."

Thrashers president Don Waddell, who has been with the franchise since its creation, told a conference call Tuesday that he wouldn't be moving to Winnipeg. He also said that True North would interview members of the organization before deciding if they'll stay on.

Longtime Manitoba Moose GM Craig Heisinger has already been promised a position with the NHL team.

"He will have a very significant role in our hockey operations," said Chipman. "Exactly which title and which role, we've been kicking around for a couple of weeks as this became real. But we owe it to Rick Dudley and the rest of that organization to get (talking) with them as quickly as possible because they're people with families and expectations.

"We'll be turning ourselves to that right away."

In the meantime, True North is asking fans to open their wallets and show support for the new franchise. Tickets will range in price between $39 and $129.

The new owners are hoping to attract commitments for 13,000 season seats before the NHL's board of governors meets on June 21 to vote on the transfer of ownership and relocation.

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