NHL coming back to Winnipeg

Courtesy of the Sports Network

Winnipeg is again getting an NHL team as the Atlanta Thrashers are on their way to Manitoba for the 2011-12 season.

True North Sports and Entertainment held a press conference on Tuesday to announce that the Thrashers, who began play in Atlanta in 1999, are heading to the city that hosted the Jets until their departure to Phoenix in 1996.

“I would like to welcome the NHL back to Winnipeg,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who got a round of applause after the announcement. “As is obvious by the fact that we are here today, True North reached an agreement to bring the Atlanta franchise back to this city.”

The deal is still not official yet as it still needs approval from the NHL’s Board of Governors, which is scheduled to meet on June 21 in New York.

“This transaction is still contingent upon the approval of the NHL’s Board of Governors,” said Bettman. “We don’t like to move franchises, but sometimes we have no choice. We are not happy about leaving Atlanta, but it was never about whether Winnipeg was better than Atlanta.”

True North Sports and Entertainment owns and operates the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League and the MTS Centre, which is expected to house the NHL team.

“This venue will be a fine home for the NHL club,” said Bettman. “And we get to be back in a place we wish we never had to leave in 1996.”

The Manitoba Moose are the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, who will open up the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday against the Boston Bruins.

It is not yet known if the Moose will remain the Canucks’ minor league team, or if the AHL will restructure in light of the new situation.

“Our Manitoba Moose have been the benchmark in the AHL since they came into the league,” said True North president Jim Ludlow. “They have helped us establish a confident base to move forward. We knew if we saw the right opportunity we would take the next logical step and we are thrilled with our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers.”

Winnipeg was previously home to the Jets, who began life in the World Hockey Association in 1972 before joining the NHL in 1979. The franchise moved to Phoenix for the 1996-97 season and has not hosted an NHL regular-season game since.

“We are just thrilled to have the NHL back in Winnipeg,” said Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger. “True North and Jim Ludlow have shown perseverance in getting a team back here and this team is a symbol of the faith we have in this province. The NHL is going to be here and it’s going to be here for good.”

This is the second time an expansion team has failed in Atlanta. The city first hosted the Flames from 1972 until their departure to Calgary in 1980. The Thrashers made the playoffs just once during 11 seasons in Atlanta, suffering a four-game sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers in 2007.

During their time in the city, the team posted a mark of 342-437-123 along with winning the Southeast Division in the 2006-07 season.

“Our objective was always to find a solution to keep the team in Atlanta, and we spent a considerable amount of time, effort and resources trying to do so,” said Atlanta co-owner Bruce Levenson. “This is not the outcome we wanted and it’s extremely disappointing that a buyer or significant investor did not come forward that would enable us to keep the team in Atlanta.”

Earlier this month, Thrashers ownership began serious negotiations with the Winnipeg group and the Winnipeg Free Press reported that the league was working on two separate schedule drafts for next season — one with Atlanta and one with Winnipeg.