ATLANTA — First, the Flames. Now, the Thrashers.
The struggling NHL franchise was sold Tuesday to a group that will move it to Winnipeg next season, making Atlanta the first city in the league’s modern era to lose two teams.
The Flames left for Calgary in 1980. The Thrashers are following them to Canada three decades later.
“I want to thank all the Thrashers fans that supported us in Atlanta for my two years there. Very unfortunate there will be no NHL hockey,” tweeted Evander Kane, one of the team’s most promising young players. “I will miss the great people and city of Atlanta.”
True North Sports and Entertainment announced the deal during a news conference at Winnipeg’s MTS Centre, the 15,015-seat arena where the team will play. The news sparked a raucous celebration in Manitoba’s largest city, which is rejoining the league after losing the Jets to Phoenix in 1996.
The new team could also be known as the Jets, though a decision on the name has not been reached. The Thrashers name — which was coined by former owner Ted Turner and referred to the state bird of Georgia — will surely not be going north of the border.
Thousands of fans in red, white and blue Jets jerseys cheered, waved flags and played impromptu games of street hockey. While the deal is subject to approval of the league owners, that’s expected to be a mere formality when the board of governors meets June 21 in New York.
“It’s nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who attended the True North news conference.
In Atlanta, there was little reaction other than a tearful news conference held by co-owner Michael Gearon. He said the group that controls the Thrashers, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and operating rights to Philips Arena did all it could to find someone who would help keep the financially ailing team in the city.
No one made a serious offer.
“I’ve been focused on trying to avoid this day,” said Gearon, who was glassy eyed and broke down several times as he met with a small group of media at Philips Arena. “I spent time with possible investors going back four years ago, because I was concerned this day would come. I made a desperate plea in February. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to any real prospects. To be sitting here today is just awful for me.”
On the city’s sports-talk stations, there was more discussion about college football and the scandal that cost Ohio State coach Jim Tressel his job than losing an NHL team that, at best, attracted a niche audience.
The Thrashers made only one playoff appearance in 11 seasons and never won a postseason game. The ownership was plagued by financial problems and attendance became a major issue in recent years. The Thrashers averaged less than 14,000 a game this season, ranking 28th out of 30 teams.
Finally, the group known as Atlanta Spirit decided to bail out of the hockey business. Three weeks ago, after Glendale, Ariz., voted to subsidize the Phoenix Coyotes for another season while that troubled team tries to secure new ownership, True North turned its attention to the Thrashers.
The deal is reportedly worth $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee that would be split by the rest of the owners.
“Our spirit is back!” said Winnipeg’s Braden Hill, decked out in a Jets jersey and hockey helmet, a Canadian flag draped on his back. “Our city lost it 15 years ago. Now it’s back.”
Meanwhile, the Thrashers’ training complex in suburban Duluth was locked up and no one answered the door. Many employees were undoubtedly freshening up their resumes, knowing they won’t be going with the team to Winnipeg.
Next door, a half-dozen customers ate lunch at the Breakaway Grill, which overlooks the rink where the team practiced and plans to remain open.
“Luckily we’re named the Breakaway Grill. We’re not named the Thrashers Nest or anything like that,” said Rhashida Chandler, who works as a bartender and server. “It’ll be an adjustment. We’ll be here for lunches. We’re lucky we have a strong youth hockey program and a men’s league program that keeps us here usually ’til 2 a.m.”
She said the economic crisis and years of losing made it difficult for the franchise to succeed in a city that has three other major-league franchises, two minor-league teams and a strong tradition in college sports that revolves around Georgia and Georgia Tech.
Chandler pointed to the 2005 trade that sent Dany Heatley to Ottawa as a turning point. The Thrashers planned to build around their young star, but he asked to be dealt after being blamed for a car crash that killed teammate Dan Snyder.
“I just wish they could’ve been more successful as a team,” Chandler said. “It’s been a downslope since Heatley left, really.”
The mood was much different in Winnipeg, of course. The new ownership group, which includes Canadian billionaire David Thomson, began a dogged pursuit for another NHL team when it became clear both the Coyotes and the Thrashers were in serious financial trouble.
The Coyotes are now owned by the league and likely would have returned to Winnipeg if suburban Glendale had not agreed to provide a $25 million subsidy for this year, then approved another for the 2011-12 season while the team tries to finalize an agreement with a prospective new owner.
In Atlanta, where the financially strapped city government is dealing with possible layoffs, there was never any consideration of bailing out the hockey team.
Bettman said the league didn’t want to leave Atlanta, a metro area with more than 5 million people and a more favorable TV market than Winnipeg, a city of less than 700,000. But, he added, there was no other option.
The deal was finalized early Tuesday.
“We don’t like to move a franchise,” Bettman said. “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 club was going to leave Atlanta.”
Gearon and the rest of the Atlanta Spirit owners came under heavy criticism for the way they ran the Thrashers, especially when it was revealed in court documents they were looking to sell the team almost as soon as they acquired it in 2004.
They claim to have lost $130 million since taking over the franchise — including $20 million in 2006-07, Gearon said, the year the Thrashers won the Southeast Division and made the playoffs with the only winning record in franchise history. They were swept in four straight games by the New York Rangers.
This season, the Thrashers were in contention for a playoff spot but faded down the stretch.
Now, they’ll be playing in a new city.
“I’m really excited,” goalie Chris Mason told The Associated Press from his hometown of Red Deer, Alberta. “I remember growing up watching the Jets and I’m just excited to know NHL hockey is coming back to a city that has always wanted hockey.
“They never wanted it to leave,” he added. “But circumstances there were out of the fans control, as they are now for fans in Atlanta. It’s not their fault. They really had no say in this. You kind of feel bad for those people, but at the same time I’m excited for Winnipeg.”
Efforts to sell the Thrashers locally or bring in new investors were hampered by a long-running dispute within the ownership group. A settlement was finally reached in December to buy out Boston-based Steve Belkin, who had broken with other owners in 2005 after he objected to the signing of Hawks star Joe Johnson.
Also, any potential owner would have become a tenant at Philips Arena, a major impediment because it would cut into much-needed revenue from sources such as concessions, parking, luxury suites and other events.
While Thrashers president Don Waddell had said last week that someone could still jump in to buy the team — at a reduced price — until the sale to True North was approved by the league, Gearon seemed unsure if there was even a bailout clause in the deal.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
Associated Press Writer George Henry in Duluth, Ga., and AP freelance writer Kevin Woodley in Vancouver contributed to this report.
Paul Newberry can be reached at http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963