Winnipeg officially returns to the NHL

It’s official. After a 15-year absence, Winnipeg is back in the good graces of the National Hockey League.

For the first time since the Hartford Whalers moved to Carolina in 1997 to become the Hurricanes, the league has approved a relocation.

Courtsey of NHL.com
 
The League’s Board of Governors gave its stamp of approval for the sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to the group from Winnipeg at its meeting in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday.  

True North Sports and Entertainment purchased the club from the Atlanta Spirit group for a reported $170 million and paid the NHL a $60 million relocation fee to move the team to Winnipeg.

“We are very honored by the NHL Board of Governors unanimous decision today,” said Mark Chipman, Chairman of the Board, True North Sports & Entertainment. “We know that the fans of this province have an appetite for NHL hockey that is rivaled by few in the league and intend to work very hard to make Manitobans proud of our franchise for years to come.”
 
The still unnamed Winnipeg franchise will begin play in the Southeast Division in 2011-12 with the expectation that it will be moved to the Western Conference starting in 2012-13.
 
Winnipeg will play out of the 15,015 seat MTS Centre, which was previously home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. The MTS Centre will be the smallest arena in the NHL, but it likely won’t feel that way with 13,000 season tickets already sold.
 
True North announced earlier this month that 7,158 season tickets were sold in a three-day pre-sale and the remaining 5,842 were purchased online in four minutes and officially processed in 17 minutes.
 
“Words are escaping us right now,” Jim Ludlow, True North president and CEO, told NHL.com on June 4. “(The four-minute completion of the 13,000 season ticket drive) is a culmination of the passion for NHL hockey that has existed in this community for a long, long time … that passion is second to none.”
 
Winnipeg has already been operating as a franchise with Kevin Cheveldayoff hired as the team’s general manager on June 8, replacing Rick Dudley, who was not retained despite having three years left on his contract. Craig Heisinger, formerly the GM of the Moose, was also hired on June 8 to be Winnipeg’s Director of Hockey Operations and Assistant General Manager.
 
Cheveldayoff and Heisinger are currently in the process of hiring a new coach to replace Craig Ramsay, who was told on Monday that he will not be back with the team even though he still has one year left on his contract. Chicago Blackhawks assistant Mike Haviland and Manitoba Moose coach Claude Noel are reportedly the top two candidates for the Winnipeg coaching job.
 
Marcel Comeau, who was the Thrashers head scout since 2003, is expected to implement Winnipeg’s draft strategy this weekend at the NHL Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn. Winnipeg has the seventh selection in the first round Friday night.
 
Dan Marr, who was the Thrashers director of amateur scouting and player development, is no longer with the franchise.
 
Winnipeg did not have any representation at the Board of Governors meeting because it still was not officially a member, but former Thrashers President Don Waddell was here representing his now defunct franchise.

Last week, speculation, mainly from Canadian broadcasters TSN and Sportsnet, was that the reason no announcement on a team name has been made was that, while TNS favors continuity with the Moose, overwhelming public sentiment still favors the Jets.

Given that no announcement will be forthcoming — at least not before Friday’s entry draft — whoever the club selects will have to don a generic jersey with either an NHL logo on the front, according to several reports.

As far as head coaches are concerned, it may not be in the best interest from a hockey standpoint to make a clean break.

Though Craig Ramsay wasn’t exactly a success behind the Thrashers’ bench, the two finalists for the position — Claude Noel of the Moose and Blackhawks assistant Mike Haviland — have little in the way of bona fides.

Noel spent just this past season as the head coach of Manitoba’s AHL club. His prior NHL experience was 24 games (10-8-6) at the end of the 2009-10 season when the Blue Jackets fired Ken Hitchcock.

Haviland has paid his dues and has been a success at every level — from an assistant with Trenton of the ECHL to Kelly Cup winner with Atlantic City in the same league, to winning coach of the year honors at Norfolk of the AHL, to winning a Cup last season in Chicago — but his best shot may come because of Cheveldayoff’s (a former ‘Hawks assistant GM) influence.

Since relocations began in earnest in 1993, only the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996 elected to start anew. That season, Terry Simpson was let go in favor of Don Hay, a successful coach in Canadian juniors who was dumped after one year.

Minnesota/Dallas (Bob Gainey), Quebec/Colorado (Marc Crawford) and Hartford/Carolina (Paul Maurice) all elected to keep continuity.