Hockey fans in Winnipeg celebrate following Tuesday's announcement… (Fred Greenslade / Reuters )
Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — The NHL will return to Winnipeg next season, 15 years after shaky economics and the lack of a local owner led to the sale of the Jets and the team's move from the frigid prairie city to Phoenix.
Commissioner Gary Bettman announced Tuesday that the Atlanta Thrashers had been sold to True North Sports and Entertainment and will play in Winnipeg's MTS Arena next season under a name still to be determined. The reported price was $170 million. The transaction must be approved by the league's Board of Governors on June 21, but that's expected to be a formality.
Realigning the NHL's divisions is also expected to be discussed by the governors, but it's unclear whether that will happen for next season. Atlanta, which entered the NHL as an expansion team for the 1999-2000 season, played in the Southeast Division. The NHL usually announces its schedule in June for the upcoming season.
"We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn't left in 1996," Bettman said at a news conference held in Winnipeg and televised throughout Canada. "We don't like to move franchises. Sometimes we have no choice."
Fans in Winnipeg partied on downtown streets, where they watched the news conference on massive TV screens. A name for the team has not been chosen, although popular sentiment seemed to be in favor of reviving the Jets name, abandoned when that team moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes.
"I'm so happy for the city of Winnipeg and the fans," said the Ducks' Teemu Selanne, who scored 76 goals as a rookie with the Jets in 1992-93. "It's always been a very special place for me. There's a reason why it's called 'Friendly Manitoba.' It's obviously sad for Atlanta fans, but it will be great to see NHL hockey in Winnipeg again."
The Thrashers, the NHL's second venture into the Atlanta market, made the playoffs only once. In a statement posted on the Thrashers' website, Atlanta Spirit executives Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon said they had tried to find buyers who would keep the team in Atlanta, but "nobody has come forward."