Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Where were you one year ago today?

Players were just going about their business when their world changed

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The "where were you" sports moments don't come around that often.

May 31, 2011 was one of them, especially if you're from Winnipeg or have lived anywhere near the Manitoba capital.

Late in the morning on a blustery, rainy Tuesday in the former media workroom in the basement of the MTS Centre, True North Sports & Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman stepped to a microphone and told a live press conference and a national television audience the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers were being purchased and moved to Winnipeg.

Chipman's partner, David Thomson, was also in the room. So was league commissioner Gary Bettman, there to endorse the move and fulfil a previously expressed desire to "right a past wrong" if he could.

"My wife and I watched it at home," said Blake Wheeler, who turned out to be the new Winnipeg Jets' most dynamic player in 2011-12. "We were following it pretty close. It had a lot to do with our future and we were pretty interested once it looked like a sale could happen."

Kevin Cheveldayoff, a Saskatchewan product and former member of the Brandon Wheat Kings, watched from afar in his Chicago office. He didn't know it that day, but his days as the Blackhawks' assistant GM were numbered.

"Watched it on TV and remember seeing Mark at the podium, him saying how proud he was on behalf of his family," said Cheveldayoff, who would be named the Jets' GM nine days later. "For me, it was a special feeling, a great feeling for Mark, knowing him for years and how hard True North Sports & Entertainment had been working behind the scenes, quietly going about their business.

"I had ties to the Atlanta Thrashers, too, through different acquaintances over the years so was very interested for those people. At that point, it was more of a moment of feeling great to see it happen and wished them all the best of luck."

Not everyone affected was glued to a TV.

Then-Thrashers defenceman Zach Bogosian, at home in Massena, N.Y., for the summer, had gone fishing.

"I had left the phone at the house and when I got back later, I had 30 texts from friends and family asking me what was happening," Bogosian said. "It was kind of hilarious. I wondered if I had been traded or something. I had to log on (to the Internet) to see what had actually happened."

Thrashers and now-Jets captain Andrew Ladd was out of the house for the day with his wife and had also left his phone behind.

He also had many people asking him questions.

"I think we were eagerly anticipating a decision one way or the other to find out where we were going to end up," Ladd said.

He was not surprised at what happened on May 31.

"I honestly knew as much as everyone else did," Ladd said. "I tried talking to my agent and people in the Atlanta organization but I don't think they even knew anything. That was the weird part, that we didn't know anything. Everything from the Atlanta side was pretty hush-hush to us."

Hush-hush, maybe, but given that word of negotiations had filtered out early in May and apart from all the speculation -- some good, much not so good -- the shock value of the May 31 announcement wasn't high.

"Late in May, I don't think we were surprised at all and judging by the reaction in Winnipeg, we were pretty excited when the announcement finally happened," Wheeler said.

"Maybe not so shocked but it all happened so quick," Bogosian said. "I honestly didn't know much about Winnipeg and it was going to be a lot of uprooting from Atlanta -- guys had houses and furniture.

"All of a sudden, we were going to be living in fast-forward."

When the Thrashers finished their season on April 10 in a 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh -- without a single sellout that season, we might add -- relocating the team was far from anyone's thoughts.

"I was more bothered by the way my year went," Bogosian said. "That's really all I thought about at the last game. At that time, it seemed to be more about Phoenix, anyway. It wasn't discussed around our room much."

"I had just been traded, so the thought of moving again had not crossed my mind," Wheeler recalled. "I remember leaving Atlanta with the full intention of being back there in a few months. But as things unfolded, we weren't surprised the sale happened."

Added Ladd: "We went through the meetings with the coaches and GM and thought about what we wanted to do to get better and improve the organization. We really thought we'd go back there.

"But what made it more confusing and more unsure was the fact that Phoenix was talked about a lot more than we were.

"I think people thought if anyone was going to move, it was the Phoenix Coyotes. Then that switched about two weeks before anything happened."

Ladd went to Europe to play in the world championship in May, where the subject became more popular by the day.

"It was more like joked about than anything else," Ladd said. "When we heard rumblings, we joked about the possibilities. But I don't think anyone 100 per cent thought we'd be there. We were hearing things, kind of crazy for a week or two, then things happened pretty fast."

Given that his future and those of many others hung in the balance, Wheeler said in retrospect, the dearth of information available before May 31 was notable.

"I got all my information the same way the fans and everyone else got it," Wheeler said with a laugh. "I never heard anything from the inside, nothing other than was reported out of Winnipeg. And a lot of NHL.com and TSN as resources."

tim.campbell@freeepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2012 C3

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