NEW YORK - What Jim Balsillie tried and failed to do three times, Winnipeg’s Mark Chipman and his billionaire partner accomplished in their first shot on goal.
The NHL board of governors welcomed Chipman and David Thomson into their club Tuesday, approving their purchase and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to the Manitoba capital in time for next season.
The stamp of approval, said to be unanimous and delivered at a downtown New York hotel, makes official the first relocation of an NHL franchise in 14 years, and the first from the U.S. to Canada since the Atlanta Flames bolted for Calgary in 1980.
The move makes it seven teams in Canada, with Winnipeg becoming the league’s smallest market, with its smallest arena, capacity 15,000 and change.
“People have noticed very clearly what Winnipeg has accomplished in a very short period of time, selling out 13,000 season tickets in record time,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told a news conference after the vote. “Sometimes it’s not just the size of the market... it’s a function of the intensity of the market.”
The slam-dunk vote by the governors proves there’s no easy, backdoor way to join hockey’s most exclusive club, as Balsillie, the BlackBerry founder, discovered in failed attempts to buy Pittsburgh, Nashville and Phoenix, the latter through bankruptcy proceedings that forced the NHL to buy the Coyotes and operate the franchise itself the last two years.
Chipman, the chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, which built and operates downtown Winnipeg’s MTS Centre, has patiently and quietly bided his time, establishing a relationship with the NHL’s power brokers through his operation of the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose.
Gaining the trust of commissioner Gary Bettman in particular, the 50-year-old agreed two years ago to be the league’s Plan B for failing franchises, first in Phoenix, then Atlanta.
When the city of Glendale promised to foot the bill for another $25 million in Coyotes losses next season, Chipman and the league last month adapted a potential Phoenix sale to Atlanta, True North quickly agreeing to pay $110 million for the franchise and another $60 million to the NHL as a relocation fee.
Only then did Chipman launch a season-ticket campaign, unlike Balsillie, who was taking deposits as he worked to buy the Predators.
“We are very honoured by the NHL board of governors’ unanimous decision,” Chipman said in a news release. “We know the fans of this province have an appetite for NHL hockey that is rivalled by few in the league and intend to work very hard to make Manitobans proud of our franchise for years to come.”
Bettman lauded the Winnipeg duo’s “patience, preparation and their professionalism,” at the same time expressing disappointment at losing a second franchise in Atlanta.
“Everybody is sorry and distressed and unhappy that we found ourselves in the circumstance where our franchise was leaving Atlanta,” the commissioner said. “We’re particularly sorry for the fans that are there. But obviously based on the reception we’ve gotten, everybody is extremely excited about the opportunities in Winnipeg for our return.”
Winnipeg will play in the Southeast Division, replacing Atlanta, for one season, before joining the Northwest as part of a realignment for the 2012-13 campaign.
As for Phoenix, Bettman said the NHL and Glendale continue the search for a new owner, suggesting there are “a number” of candidates.
League governors, he said, are not ready to revolt over their continued ownership of the team.
“The board isn’t funding the losses. The city of Glendale is,” Bettman said. “And the board is comfortable with where things are.”