For the first time since the Jets left Winnipeg following the 1995-96 season, NHL hockey is closer than ever to returning to the capital of Manitoba.

With Phoenix already ruled out for a return to its Great North roots, it appears that the Atlanta Thrashers are the most likely franchise to relocate at the moment.

On Monday, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Winnipeg Free Press combined to provide a brief glimpse into the wheels currently in motion to get a franchise back into the Canadian Prairies.

The AJC reported that Atlanta Spirit, the group which owns the Atlanta Thrashers as well as the Hawks and Philips Arena, had entered into talks with True North Sports and Entertainment about selling the franchise quoting a person close to the NHL’s sale process who revealed that talks with TNS most likely means the Thrashers would relocate to Winnipeg.

While both sides have not entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement, and a deal has not been reached, the fact that talks are underway may suggest the uprooting of the franchise might happen as soon as next season. Neither Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, nor True North spokespersons offered comment on the matter. Spirit co-owner Bruce Levenson neither confirmed nor denied the possible identities of potential new owners.

However, the paper also revealed that a meeting occurred Monday between Thrashers team officials and a buyer who is willing to keep the team in Atlanta.

National Hockey League by-laws require that any team seeking to relocate, must submit a written application to the league office by January 1 of the year preceding the one in which the move is to occur. One exception to the rule would be that, if a majority of the teams consent, the league can accept a later filing date. That means the Thrashers can conceivably move prior to this coming season, or for the 2012-13 campaign.

Winnipeg hosted the Jets in the NHL from 1979 through 1996, before the franchise relocated to Phoenix.

True North Sports is the entity which controls the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose, as well as the MTS Centre, which replaced the old Winnipeg Arena. When completed in 2004, the venue was erected with the faint hope of attracting an NHL franchise once more, but suited perfectly for AHL attendance in a regional hub. It seats over 15,000 for hockey, which is close, but not close enough, and will presumably need upgrades in luxury boxes to compete on an NHL level. Still, MTS is more ready and able to accept an NHL franchise than say, oh…Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, which has to compete with Toronto and Buffalo despite a significant increase in seating capacity in recent years.

Another wrinkle to the situation came from the Free Press, which reported that the league is working on two separate schedule drafts for next season — one with Atlanta and one with Winnipeg.

Given that the deadlines have passed for official relocation, and that it doesn’t appear — barring last-minute shenanigans — that the owners will suddenly spring for Atlanta to skip town this summer for the proverbial Greener Pastures, the Thrashers are staying in Atlanta for at least next season.

Presuming an eventual move, it would create some minor havoc with the geographic nature of the divisional alignments.

There are several options available, though none quite as facile than if the Penguins ended up moving to Kansas City a couple years ago.

One is, the Thrashers move to Winnipeg, but continue to play in the Southeast until the NHL gets its crap together and figures out if it wants to go back to a four-division alignment like it had prior to 1998. 

That creates a situation like the one which saw Hartford move to Carolina in 1997 and play in the Northeast before the current six-division system was founded the following season. But it would look about as ridiculous as the post-WHA expansion divisional groupings, which saw Montreal, Hartford and LA play in the old Norris Division, and the Flyers, Rangers and Islanders in the Patrick Division with the Calgary Flames.

The NHL finally rectified the situation for the 1981-82 season, moving the Patrick into the Wales Conference with the Adams, and grouping teams along geographic regions. Even then, Winnipeg got the short end of the stick due to its location smack in the center of North America.

The Jets were first placed in the Norris (which also included nearby Minnesota along with Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Toronto) for one year, then when Colorado relocated to New Jersey, the Jets were placed in the Smythe with Vancouver and Los Angeles. Travel got so bad that the Jets played back-to-back division road games in one city, and also welcomed division foes the same way to cut down on mileage.

Two is, the Thrashers move to Winnipeg, and join the Central Division. That might mean the Predators are the likely candidate to move into the Southeast and be more compatible with the Southern NHL franchises rather than the Midwestern ones. But, if the rumors are true and the Red Wings get first crack to move into the East with any future realignment, the league might as well go back to the drawing board.

A third option is that Atlanta heads to Winnipeg, and joins the Northwest Division, in effect joining its former Smythe Division brethren in Edmonton and Calgary. That means more than one team is on the move. What I foresee happening there, is that Vancouver (being more a Pacific-located city) takes up residence in the Pacific (duh) Division, and Dallas by default, moves into the Central. Nashville, presumably, still gets the vacant slot in the Southeast.

Of course, this can all go for naught and Atlanta can remain right where it is, with a new buyer who will need plenty of marketing skills to fill those “can’t block it out because they’re at ice level” empty lower-bowl seats. It’s a shame, really, that a major hub city like Atlanta is on the verge of failing a second time. At least the Flames went out with winning records and playoff berths before leaving for Calgary in 1980.

Whatever, it’s long overdue for another Canadian city to host an NHL team.  

Gary Bettman was flat-out wrong in his assessment on Tuesday that the reason why the league left Winnipeg and Quebec was that no local ownership groups in those cities wanted to foot the bill. The reason was simple economics, that the Canadian dollar was taking a savage beating in the late 90′s compared to the American dollar, and no ownership wanted to take up such a risk on American cash-flow terms when they had to pay their players in Canadian funds.

The tables have turned, and the Canadian dollar is on par with the American greenback. So, why not Winnipeg, and why not now?

Remember three-color uniforms with simple logos? 

How about a glimpse into a possible future uniform for the Jets Mark II?

Isn’t that better than THIS?

Of  course it is.