Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hungry for final NHL decision

Thursday appetizer a start, now for the main course -- where's the beef?

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Winnipeg was served up an NHL appetizer Thursday night but it will now have to wait for the main course.

The city is all bibbed up with knife and fork in hand and ready to chow down but the steak is still on the grill.

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Here's hoping Chef Gary Bettman determines it can be served medium rare and not well done because the customers are licking their lips and getting a little antsy.

The wait for the return of the NHL has already been interminable and has now reached new heights of the absurd.

Having folks party at Portage and Main on Thursday on the basis of what appear to be slightly premature reports is likely just the beginning of some heady days for Winnipeg hockey fans.

The Globe and Mail reported Thursday night that a deal between True North Sports and Entertainment and Atlanta Spirit Group was done and the Atlanta Thrashers would be moving to Winnipeg.

Almost immediately True North, Thrashers management and the NHL shot down the report saying a deal was not done.

Maybe semantics, maybe not. Credible sources told the Free Press Thursday night there were still "material issues," to be ironed out before a deal could be struck.

Sources said early Friday that negotiations were continuing and that a deal was expected to be reached.

When? No one is saying but at this stage it may or may not just be a formality.

Premier Greg Selinger hinted at a Tuesday press conference.

"Let's make sure we've got the ink dry," Selinger said. "Let's see what happens on Tuesday."

Published reports continued to break on Friday stating a deal was done and True North spokesman Scott Brown reiterated his company's stance saying simply, "a deal is not done."

Certainly there's lots of smoke right now and quite likely just as much fire. But until an official announcement is made or a legitimate source from True North, the NHL or Atlanta Spirit confirms a deal, there's nothing to sink one's teeth into. Globe columnist Stephen Brunt broke the Globe story and was sticking by it on Friday.

"David Thomson is a partner in True North Sports and Entertainment and owns the newspaper I work for. We don't move in the same social circles and I did not get this story from him," said Brunt. "But this story is on the front page of his newspaper."

Take from that what you will, but the Globe didn't offer a retraction Friday.

Down in Atlanta, the Thrashers are moving ahead with a planned season ticket holder party for today and, in fact, the organization sold at least one season ticket package on Friday.

Perhaps just as telling, however, is Thrashers' ownership not getting out in front of this story with a firm on-the-record denial. No one is coming out and putting their name on a denial because they would look like a liar if and when the deal is officially completed in the coming days.

Next up is likely another round of leaks saying the deal is officially done and shortly after that True North Sports and Entertainment will step forth to announce they have reached a conditional offer to purchase and relocate the Thrashers to Winnipeg.

The deal will be conditional on NHL board of governor approval. Commissioner Gary Bettman reportedly received permission from the executive committee to allow this deal to move forward but once it closes, BOG approval will still be required.

Expect that approval to hinge on the success of a marketplace test in the form of a season ticket drive.

Sources say customers will be asked to make three-year commitments and it's believed the threshold for success will be north of 10,000 season ticket packages.

So there's still some hurdles to cross in Winnipeg's pursuit of an NHL franchise.

Perhaps we're down to mere formalities but this community will breathe much easier once they see that main course being wheeled out of the kitchen.

Somebody let the waiter know we are ready.

Damn ready.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2011 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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