By Kevin Allen
As Winnipeg fans celebrated the NHL's return to their city, Atlanta Thrashers fans expressed anger, frustration and sadness over the loss of their NHL franchise.
"I'm both sad and disgusted with the way that the Atlanta Spirit treated the fan base," Thrashers fan Zachary Smith said. "They will never get another dime from me."
The Atlanta Spirit group, which also owns the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, sold the Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment, which will be moving the team to Winnipeg starting in the 2011-12 season.
The purchase price was $170 million, with $60 million going to the NHL for a relocation fee.
"Want to thank all the Thrashers fans that supported us in Atlanta for my two years there," Thrashers player Evander Kane published Tuesday on Twitter. "Very unfortunate there will be no NHL hockey."
Thrashers President Don Waddell has been with the team since June 1998 and is emotional about the team's departure.
"This has been our life," Waddell said. "When you have been part of something for 13 years, (the sting) isn't going to go away quickly."
The Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996 because no local buyer could be found. In those days, smaller-market teams were struggling because they were heavily outspent by larger markets and smaller Canadian markets had a tougher situation because their revenues were in Canadian dollars and players were being paid in the stronger U.S. currency. Today, the NHL has a salary cap and revenue sharing, plus the Canadian dollar is stronger than the U.S. dollar.
"I'm really excited," Atlanta goalie Chris Mason said about moving to Winnipeg. "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. 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."
After losing its NHL team, Winnipeg has had a highly successful American Hockey League franchise called the Manitoba Moose. The city's arena, seven-year-old MTS Centre, seats 15,015, which would make it the NHL's smallest arena.
"I'd rather play in a rink that holds 15,000 and feels like it's 20,000 than go into a building with 20,000 seats and just 5,000 fans," said Vancouver Canucks winger Alex Burrows, who played for Manitoba in 2005-06. "I think it's a great move for the league."
Said Vancouver's Jeff Tambellini, who played for the Moose this season: "They treat you like an NHL player, and now they get to have an NHL franchise, which they deserve. It's always bigger playing in Canada."
The franchise's new owners said they hadn't decided on a name for the franchise but planned to finalize that soon. "And for all the Jets fans, I'm on board with keeping the Jets name and logo," Kane tweeted.
New owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson are inheriting a team that has missed the playoffs in 10 out of 11 seasons. The Thrashers won 34 games last season and gave up more goals (269) than any other Eastern Conference team.
"I truly believe it could have been a really good market," former Thrashers goalie Johan Hedberg said. "But it comes down to winning. A couple rounds in the playoffs would have helped."
It didn't help the Thrashers' competiveness that they had the NHL's lowest payroll in four of the last five seasons. By contrast, the Hawks had the NBA's seventh highest this season.
True North first tried to buy the Phoenix Coyotes but turned its attention to the Thrashers when the city of Glendale made a financial agreement with the NHL to keep the team in Arizona for at least one more season.
The Winnipeg group isn't expected to have difficulty reaching its objective of selling 13,000 season tickets.
"I'm very happy for all the great hockey fans in Winnipeg," said Coyotes captain Shane Doan, the last Jets player remaining on that team. "It's great to have another NHL team in Canada. Winnipeg is a passionate hockey town, and I know they will support their team. I'm also happy for all the Thrashers players and their families. It's nice that they have stability and will not have to deal with two years of uncertainty like us."
The new Winnipeg team will compete in the NHL's Southeast Division next season because it's too late to realign for 2011-12. But the Detroit Red Wings hope to move to the Eastern Conference to allow Winnipeg to move to the West.
"I can assure you that Commissioner Gary Bettman knows (owner) Mike Ilitch's thoughts on this," said Jim Devellano, Detroit's senior vice president. "I guess all I can say is that we have our fingers crossed."
Contributing: Kevin Woodley and Mike Brehm