'It is nice to be back in Winnipeg': Bettman

Cody Petrash and Antony Maluzynsky wave to passing motorists outside the Bank of Montreal building...

Cody Petrash and Antony Maluzynsky wave to passing motorists outside the Bank of Montreal building at the corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street in Winnipeg on Tuesday, May 31, 2011. (STEPHEN RIPLEY/QMI Agency)

KIRK PENTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:49 AM ET

WINNIPEG - After 15 years of hoping, 19 months of speculation, 12 days of frenzied anticipation and countless hours of behind-the-scenes work, the day finally arrived.

The NHL is back in Winnipeg.

True North Sports & Entertainment, led by Winnipeg’s Mark Chipman and backed by Canadian billionaire David Thomson, worked into the wee hours of Tuesday morning to complete its purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers from Atlanta Spirit LLC. An 11 a.m. news conference at MTS Centre, where the team will begin play this fall, made official the biggest sports story in Manitoba history.

“If we didn’t get this done today, there was a good chance it wasn’t getting done,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We were really out of time. It is nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years.”

Manitoba hockey fans, who have been without an NHL team since the Jets left for Phoenix in 1996, flocked by the thousands to downtown Winnipeg to celebrate what was first reported as a done deal May 19. Local schools halted classes to let their students watch the news conference on television, and the University of Manitoba interrupted its spring convocation to announce the NHL was back.

“I am excited beyond words,” said Chipman, who twice came close to buying the Phoenix Coyotes before turning his attention to Atlanta earlier this month.

Because of the late announcement, the yet-to-be-named squad will play in the NHL’s Southeast Division next season with the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers before moving to the Western Conference for the 2012-13 campaign.

True North will attempt to sell 13,000 season tickets, requiring commitments of between three and five years and at an average price of $82 per game, before the NHL board of governors meets June 21 to approve the deal. A successful season-ticket drive isn’t necessary to get board approval, but it won’t hurt.

“The best way for our fans here in Winnipeg to celebrate the opportunity is to buy season tickets,” Bettman said. “This isn’t going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night.”

The reported purchase price was $170 million, including a $60-million relocation fee for the NHL.

Thomson, who has a net worth of $23 billion, said civic and national pride is why he agreed to get involved with Chipman in the pursuit of a franchise.

“I am committed to this community as I am to this country,” he said. “It’s about time.”

The NHL’s gaining a seventh Canadian franchise even caught the attention of the prime minister.

“Today,” Stephen Harper said in a media release, “is a historic day for Canada’s game.”


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