After weeks (and even years) of speculating, Winnipeg will again have an NHL team to call it's own, as the Atlanta Thrashers will be relocating to the Manitoba plains for the 2011-12 season.
However the road to this day was quite an interesting one, first with the circus show involving the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes, to the rather quick dissolve of the Thrashers. The Phoenix franchise has been on the market for the better part of two seasons, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been persistent with his stance about finding a buyer who would keep the franchise in the southwest.
Businessman Matthew Hulsizer has long been associated with the sale of the Coyotes, but an Arizona group called the Goldwater Institute has been trying to block a sale because the financial burden it would likely take to keep the team local. The City of Glendale, Arizona has decided to back the Coyotes for one more season, though there are still many hurdles that have to be cleared to keep the team in Phoenix.
Going back to the Winnipeg ends of things, this isn't their first venture in NHL hockey. The Winnipeg Jets were an NHL franchise from 1979-1996 before being sold and leaving for Phoenix to become the Coyotes.
The new ownership group in Winnipeg, represented by Toronto billionaire David Thomson and a group called True North Sports believe now is the team for hockey to return. With the American recession and an improving Canadian dollar it will be interesting to see if hockey can thrive from a business perspective, in a community of 633,000.
To help boost chances for an NHL return, Winnipeg built the 15,015 seat MTS Centre in 2004, a downtown hockey facility to replace the old Winnipeg Arena. The MTS Centre, which is owned by True North Sports, would be the smallest arena in the NHL, about 1,000 seats smaller than Nassau Coliseum, the home of the New York Islanders. The current tenants of the arena are the successful Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. The Moose likely will be relocated with the recent announcement.
For Atlanta, this marks the second time an NHL team has failed in Georgia. The Atlanta Flames operated from 1972 until relocating in 1980 to become the present Calgary Flames. The Thrashers were established as an expansion team in 1999, and were owned by Michael Gearon (and Atlanta Spirit LLC), who in February announced he was seeking new investors for the team. The Thrashers, who have been to the playoffs just once in franchise history (2007), has been reported to have lost over $130 million in the past six years. Atlanta Spirit LLC still owns the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and Phillips Arena, home of the Hawks and the departed Thrashers.
This can be viewed as a blow to hockey in the United States, losing a team in a large southern presence and television market, but in the end it appears hockey is still a tough sport to sale in a place such as Atlanta.
Look for more information on the relocation as it is announced. In the meantime, you can follow the development on Birdwatchers Anonymous.