TEN years ago to the day, a group of suits met in the bowels of the downtown arena to announce what was to many in these parts the righting of a wrong.

TEN years ago to the day, a group of suits met in the bowels of the downtown arena to announce what was to many in these parts the righting of a wrong.

The NHL was returning to Manitoba’s capital.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (left) and Mark Chipman seal the deal May 31, 2011. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press files)</p>

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman (left) and Mark Chipman seal the deal May 31, 2011. (David Lipnowski / The Canadian Press files)

"Today, on behalf of my family, our partner, David Thomson, and our entire organization, I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers," Mark Chipman, the chairman of True North’s board, said during a hastily called press conference May 31, 2011, at 11 a.m.

"In a sense, I guess you can say True North, our city and our province has received the call we’ve long since been waiting for."

The immediate response was, predictably, some spontaneous shinny at Portage and Main.

A decade later, Cassidy Dankochik remembers putting pedal to metal and racing from Gimli to the iconic intersection to join in a celebration he steadfastly maintains was tortuously long overdue.

"There was no way I was missing it," says Dankochik, 28. "There were maybe three other people there before me, and then the crowd really started to grow. We watched the announcement on the big screen (Global courtyard) but I’m not sure how much people actually heard because everyone was going nuts.

Exuberant Jets fans gather at Portage and Main after the announcement. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Exuberant Jets fans gather at Portage and Main after the announcement. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"That’s the place to go when something happens with pro hockey in Manitoba. You can track it all the way back to the Bobby Hull signing (in 1972), the (Dale) Hawerchuk signing (1981), crowds of people coming to ‘Save the Jets’. But this time fans gathered to welcome them back — for good."

In Atlanta, there was little reaction beyond a sombre media briefing held by co-owner Michael Gearon, who maintained his group did all it could to find someone who would help keep the financially troubled team in Georgia.

True North and the Atlanta ownership group had negotiated the reported US$170-million transaction into the wee hours of the morning, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman revealed when he took to the podium after Chipman.

"If we didn’t get this done (Tuesday), I think there was a good chance this wasn’t getting done," Bettman said, noting, the parties were on a conference call at 3:30 a.m. without a done deal. "We were really out of time.

"It is clear times have changed for Winnipeg as an NHL market and this is a wonderful time to add a club to Canada."

Meanwhile, hundreds of rabid hockey fans gathered just a few blocks east, while a thousand more congregated at The Forks.

While the blade of Dankochik’s wooden stick splintered early in the colossal scrimmage, his exuberance couldn’t be shattered.

A former Red River College student and now the editor of the Quesnel Cariboo Observer newspaper in the B.C. interior, he was just four years old when the original Jets franchise vacated the city and headed for Arizona in 1996, and just a year removed from high school when the purchase of the Thrashers was announced.

"I could talk anyone’s ear off about them coming back," Dankochik said. "I was big on all the (online hockey forums) following the ownership issues. I’d watch the old Jets highlights on YouTube. I was watching Glendale (Ariz.) council meetings when we thought the Coyotes were maybe coming here.

"For me, that day at Portage and Main was validation, because I wrapped my entire identity around the belief Winnipeg could support an NHL team."

Two major hurdles had to be cleared before the relocation was finalized. The still unnamed franchise needed to sell 13,000 season tickets almost immediately, and the deal had to be rubber-stamped by the NHL’s board of governors.

"This isn’t going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night," said the commissioner.

Done and done. The still unnamed Winnipeg franchise sold 13,000 season tickets in less than 72 hours, and the league’s board of governors gave the official thumbs-up less than three weeks later.

Chipman revealed later that summer the ownership group had come within just a few minutes of acquiring the Coyotes in May 2010, however, the City of Glendale wired US$25 million to the NHL’s office just in time.

But the owners of the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose stayed patient.

Chipman had always maintained his philosophy with running the Moose was "to operate as though we were part of the NHL."

On May 31, 2011, a hockey-crazed province finally hit the big time again.

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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