Updated:ATLANTA - True North Sports and Entertainment, a Canadian ownership group, announced on Tuesday they had reached a deal to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers and relocate them to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The announcement came after weeks of speculation the Thrashers' owners, Atlanta Spirit LLC, wanted to sell the team after racking up $130 million in losses in the past seven years. Lawyers worked through the night to finalize the deal, which was completed before noon. The deal is worth a reported $170 million, which includes a $60 million relocation fee that will be split by the league's franchises.
"If I were Paul Allen or Bill Gates, we wouldn't be in this situation, but I'm not," Thrashers' owner Michael Gearon told Channel 2's Zach Klein. "I think the teams require a lot of capital. They're not cheap. It takes a lot of money to build teams and operate them. Trying to run them and operate them is difficult."
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League commissioner Gary Bettman attended the announcement with thousands of fans gathered outside the MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg for the news conference in a concert-like setting. Some fans already stood in line to purchase tickets.
The relocation is pending approval by the NHL Board of Governors. A vote on the deal is expected at a meeting on June 21.
"We get to be back in a place we wished we hadn't left in 1996," said Bettman. "We're not happy about leaving Atlanta. This was never about whether Winnipeg is better than Atlanta. The decision to come to Winnipeg was only made after the Atlanta ownership made the decision they were going to sell even if it meant the team was going to leave Atlanta."
The Thrashers began play in Atlanta in 1999 as an expansion team. Atlanta Spirit LLC purchased the Thrashers, the Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena in 2004 from AOL/Time Warner.
Gearon said he felt bad for his employees.
"They've given their heart and souls," he said. "Not being in a position to do what I can to ensure job stability is awful because there's nothing worse than that."
"You know that you're getting new ownership, and they're going to want to put a winning team on the ice. Not that we didn't here, but from the ownership side, they'll be willing to give more," Thrashers Captain Andrew Ladd told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reacting to the news.
The Thrashers held many of their practices at the Ice Forum in Duluth. Ice Forum Assistant Manager Jason Greeson told Channel 2's Richard Elliot the loss of the team will do more than just hurt financially.
"The Atlanta Thrashers were huge in developing youth hockey in Atlanta and growing the sport," said Greeson. "Hopefully, it's not going to have that big of an impact for us, but you never know what's going to happen."
Hockey fan Bo Dosh told Elliot he lays the blame in just one place. "Ownership. Period. End of story." But other hockey fans weren't so quick to lay blame on the Atlanta Spirit group.
"When I look at how much money they were losing, and how little support we got, it's hard to put that much blame on them," said Paul Richardson. "It goes two ways. That's our fault for not coming to the games. And the amount of money they were losing, they just weren't seeing any support. So why keep the team here?"
Tuesday afternoon, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed issued a statement which read in part, "I was disappointed to learn today that the Atlanta Thrashers are leaving the city and relocating to Winnipeg. I want to thank...the Thrashers team for the excitement and competitive spirit they brought to our city. I wish them continued success."
The Thrashers move to Winnipeg will be the second time the city has been home to an NHL franchise. The Jets played in Winnipeg from 1979 to 1996 when they relocated to Phoenix, Ariz.
The Thrashers are the second Atlanta hockey franchise to relocate to Canada. In 1980 the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary, Alberta after an eight-year stint in Atlanta.