NEWS
05/31/2011 12:39 EDT | Updated 07/31/2011 05:12 EDT

Winnipeg Jets Cleared For Return: Conference

(The Canadian Press) -- WINNIPEG - Fifteen years after the National Hockey League walked out of Winnipeg and broke the hearts of thousands of fans, it has returned home to a raucous welcome.

Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, announced Tuesday that the company has purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and will move the team to the Manitoba capital.

"I'm excited beyond words," said Chipman, whose group includes Canadian billionaire David Thomson.

His words set off an immediate roar of approval from fans gathered at a popular market promenade at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers called The Forks.

The sale is subject to approval next month by the NHL board of governors.

"We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn't left in 1996," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

There was no immediate word on whether the franchise will be named the Jets, a sentimental fan favourite and the name of the team in its first go-round in the league. The NHL owns the rights to the name.

Hours before the announcement, the party had already started. Fans in red, white, and blue Jets jerseys began celebrating throughout the city.

They had been anticipating the announcement after word leaked out earlier this month that a deal was close between True North and Atlanta Spirit LLC, owner of the Thrashers.

The sale price was reported to be $170 million. Almost a third of that — $60 million — goes to the NHL as a relocation fee.

The team will play in the MTS Centre, owned and operated by True North and currently the home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, which is a lower-tier feeder system for the NHL.

True North also owns the Moose franchise, which is part of the Vancouver Canucks farm system.

The MTS has 15,015 seats for hockey, which makes it the smallest venue in the league, with 1,159 fewer chairs than Nassau Coliseum, where the New York Islanders play.

And while the new Winnipeg franchise may be mediocre, it isn't the worst team in Canada. Atlanta finished 25th in the 30-team league and missed the playoffs last season, but the Ottawa Senators were 26th and the Edmonton Oilers were dead last.

The Winnipeg Jets were in the NHL for 17 years before hitting the wall on funding and moving to Phoenix to become the Coyotes in 1996.

That was 5,511 days ago. Those born the year the Jets died are now entering high school and learning how to drive.

Jet diehards never flagged. They kept the spirit of the team alive on websites and chatrooms, lobbying for a team and keeping track of Jets alumni such as Bobby Hull, Thomas Steen and Dale Hawerchuk.

Earlier this year it appeared Winnipeg was about to get its own franchise back, but last-minute subsidies and deal-making kept the red-ink-stained Coyotes in Arizona

But just as the Coyote door closed, the Thrasher one opened.

The Thrashers took to the ice as an expansion team in 1999, part of a rapid league expansion at the end of the last century to capture the elusive Sun Belt market.

The team, named for the Georgia state bird, left the nest and performed a face-plant. In 11 seasons over 12 years the blue-shirted men made the playoffs just once, losing in four straight to the New York Rangers in the first round in 2007.

Many nights the Thrashers played in front of great wastelands of empty chairs at futuristic Philips Arena, located downtown beside CNN headquarters and the Centennial Olympic Plaza.

The only time it made national news was, tragically, in the fall of 2003, when star forward Dany Heatley(notes) crashed his speeding Ferrari, killing passenger and teammate Dan Snyder. Heatley was sentenced to probation and community service, and now plays for the San Jose Sharks.

The team tried all kinds of stunts and gimmicks. There was the Blue Crew, a team of long-legged young girls in plunging necklines and short shorts, bending over shovels to groom the ice during TV timeouts.

In December, the team's bird-headed mascot "stole" the rink's Zamboni and led police, who were in on the stunt, on a low-speed chase down the highway. The mascot, Thrash, was "jailed" and wasn't to be let go until fans bought 5,000 more tickets for that month.

None of it worked.

The team was sinking in debt and was beset by squabbles and lawsuits among its owners.

In fact, the litigation revealed the team has lost more than $150 million since 2005 and has been looking for a buyer for six years.

No local white knights surfaced. And while Winnipeg children broke their piggy banks to try to save the Jets in 1996, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed shrugged his shoulders last week, saying, "We will withstand (the Thrashers' departure) just fine."

This is the second time pro hockey has failed in Dixie. The Atlanta Flames lasted eight years until moving in 1980 to become the Calgary Flames.