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VIDEO: Chew on this NHL rumour...

Toronto buyers moving Thrashers to Winnipeg

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There was more NHL/Winnipeg speculation on Saturday night's Hockey Night in Canada's Satellite Hotstove.

On the season's opening weekend, the captivated nation was told that big money from Toronto has done plenty of work already to buy the Atlanta Thrashers and move them to Winnipeg. Is it just another episode of wishful thinking or a real indicator of what's afoot?

True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman wasn't saying on Sunday, taking his usual tack of the less said the better. There are several known quantities to this ongoing story:

* The NHL has more problems than just the financially drowning Phoenix Coyotes.

* Chipman, whose company owns Winnipeg's MTS Centre, has been a consistently keen observer of NHL franchise matters for longer than his arena has been open (2004) and has never denied his interest in some future deal that might bring the NHL back to the city.

* One of the biggest partners in the True North success story, and certainly its most well-heeled, is Osmington, Inc., the Toronto-based private real estate company of David Thomson, the richest man in Canada and son of the late Ken Thomson.

* Chipman and True North have been to NHL headquarters in New York to address league executives and governors about their new arena, their situation and their interest and they continue to maintain a very quiet but open channel for dialogue with the league's leadership.

* In this case of Saturday's HNIC outburst, the Thrashers' owners, the Spirit group of eight partners, have been embroiled in disputes and legal wrangling for about four years over control of the NHL team, the NBA Hawks and Philips Arena. This summer, a judge tossed out a lawsuit that sent the bickering partners back to the starting blocks over share valuation and how one side or the other could be bought out. It's thought that the group is far more interested in basketball and could sell the Thrashers, but that's only speculation.

* In recent years, hopeful yet emotionally battered Winnipeggers have gotten better at not overreacting to every bit of speculation or mention of their city and the NHL, even when it comes from influential or powerful figures like league commissioner Gary Bettman himself.

All of the above considered, the tone of any speculation on Winnipeg seemed to move one grade towards legitimate in the spring when, among the court filings and briefs in the Coyotes' debacle, it was discovered that Bettman wrote in an email earlier this year that the Coyotes, if they were going to be sold and relocated anywhere, ought to be offered up first to Winnipeg.

That seemed to infer the commissioner, so wildly reviled for chasing teams out of Canada in the mid-'90s, would now give his blessing for a repatriation.

Chipman had almost no reaction to that revelation, too, not only because he had no intention of rocking the boat but also because he was steadfastly sticking to his position that the NHL knows where we are.

Even as the Phoenix mess stumbled from headline to headline to last week's interim conclusion that Ontario billionaire Jim Balsillie could not buy the bankrupt team and relocate it to Hamilton, the eager return-of-the-Jets type crowd would no doubt urge Chipman to get into the bidding line the NHL will surely seek for Winnipeg's former team.

But the financial morass in the desert will be more complicated and expensive than most suspect, Chipman said late last week, while hinting he and his group won't be rushing into the first money pit that comes along. He didn't say he was done looking, though.

The group has previously kicked tires in Nashville, and watched with great interest in Phoenix, but both situations are both tainted and inflated by Balsillie's inept interventions.

Maybe they're kicking tires in Atlanta, too, or maybe not. Chipman won't say, but you can take this to the bank -- he's only going to look at the possibilities as sound business propositions and if he has any control over it, Winnipeg won't be dragged into any bidding wars and his group continues to have no desire to make a single public proclamation about what it may or may not do until it's done.

That should suggest to the wise money that the story is a long way from over.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2009 C1

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