WINNIPEG — Fifteen years after the National Hockey League walked out of Winnipeg and broke the hearts of thousands of fans, it has returned home to a raucous welcome.
Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, announced Tuesday that the company has purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and will move the team to the Manitoba capital.
“I’m excited beyond words,” said Chipman, whose group includes Canadian billionaire David Thomson.
His words set off an immediate roar of approval from fans gathered at a popular market promenade at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers called The Forks.
The sale is subject to approval next month by the NHL board of governors.
“We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn’t left in 1996,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
There was no immediate word on whether the franchise will be named the Jets, a sentimental fan favourite and the name of the team in its first go-round in the league. The NHL owns the rights to the name.
Hours before the announcement, the party had already started. Fans in red, white, and blue Jets jerseys began celebrating throughout the city.
They had been anticipating the announcement after word leaked out earlier this month that a deal was close between True North and Atlanta Spirit LLC, owner of the Thrashers.
The sale price was reported to be $170 million. Almost a third of that — $60 million — goes to the NHL as a relocation fee.
The team will play in the MTS Centre, owned and operated by True North and currently the home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, which is a lower-tier feeder system for the NHL.
True North also owns the Moose franchise, which is part of the Vancouver Canucks farm system.
The MTS has 15,015 seats for hockey, which makes it the smallest venue in the league, with 1,159 fewer chairs than Nassau Coliseum, where the New York Islanders play.
And while the new Winnipeg franchise may be mediocre, it isn’t the worst team in Canada. Atlanta finished 25th in the 30-team league and missed the playoffs last season, but the Ottawa Senators were 26th and the Edmonton Oilers were dead last.
The Winnipeg Jets were in the NHL for 17 years before hitting the wall on funding and moving to Phoenix to become the Coyotes in 1996.
That was 5,511 days ago. Those born the year the Jets died are now entering high school and learning how to drive.
Jet diehards never flagged. They kept the spirit of the team alive on websites and chatrooms, lobbying for a team and keeping track of Jets alumni such as Bobby Hull, Thomas Steen and Dale Hawerchuk.
Earlier this year it appeared Winnipeg was about to get its own franchise back, but last-minute subsidies and deal-making kept the red-ink-stained Coyotes in Arizona
But just as the Coyote door closed, the Thrasher one opened.
The Thrashers took to the ice as an expansion team in 1999, part of a rapid league expansion at the end of the last century to capture the elusive Sun Belt market.
This is the second time pro hockey has failed in Dixie. The Atlanta Flames lasted eight years until moving in 1980 to become the Calgary Flames.