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Bettman hints NHL cool to more Canadian franchises

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (L) talks with True North Sports and Entertainment Chairman Mark Chipman as they attend a news conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 31, 2011. Canada reclaimed one of its lost NHL franchises on Tuesday when the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to True North Sports and Entertainment and relocated to Winnipeg, triggering wild celebrations in the Prairie city. REUTERS/Fred Greenslade

Fred Greenslade/Reuters

While Winnipeg celebrated the return of the NHL on Tuesday, league commissioner Gary Bettman warned the move should not be seen as a sign that more teams could be moving to Canada.

News that the cash-strapped Atlanta Thrashers had been sold to True North Sports and Entertainment and relocated to Winnipeg, sparked a burst of national pride as the hockey-mad country reclaimed one of its lost franchises that some believed was gone forever.

Winnipeg, which becomes the NHL's smallest market, was home to the Jets when they played in the World Hockey Association before joining the NHL in 1979.

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The Jets played for 17 years in the league before moving to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1996 because of financial losses related to an outdated arena, spiraling NHL salaries and a weak Canadian dollar.

Tuesday's announcement may raise hopes of hockey fans in Quebec City, which lost its NHL team to the U.S. in 1995, but Bettman said there were no immediate plans to relocate any more teams to Canada.

"The opportunity to bring a franchise back to Canada, which we know is the heart and soul of our game, is vitally important," he said.

"No one should read anything into what happened with Atlanta going to Winnipeg as any indication that other franchises are moving.

"We resist franchise relocation, everybody knows that. We don't think we have any candidates for relocation and we're going to fight as hard as we can to avoid relocation. I don't want raise anybody's expectations."

With plans in place to build a new state-of-the-art arena, Quebec City believes it is next on the list to take in an NHL orphan but Canadian cities have been disappointed before.

Hamilton built a 19,000 arena in 1985 thinking it would land a coveted franchise but has stood in line waiting for more than three decades.

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Canadian Blackberry billionaire, Jim Balsillie, has bid for at least three different teams but his efforts to bring a team to Ontario have been thwarted.

With NHL eyes focused firmly on U.S. expansion, Canada was viewed as the quaint birthplace of the sport offering plenty of history and tradition but little in the way of potential for growth.

The NHL's southern experiment, however, has not been without problems with Dallas, Phoenix and the Florida Panthers among the current trouble spots.

While several U.S. franchises have been hemorrhaging money, Canadian teams have flourished with the help of a stronger Canadian dollar currently trading above par with the U.S. greenback.

"Some people are speculating that we came here as a last resort that is absolutely not true," said Bettman.

"To be able to come back to a place we know loves NHL hockey, to be able to do it in a city that has changed, with a collective bargaining agreement that's leveled the playing surface, with this building, with ownership these were factors that didn't exist in 1996.

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"So to comeback to right a wrong is an extraordinary thing."

Unable to find a willing buyer in Atlanta, the NHL was left no choice but to turn north, where it found a willing and eager partner in True North, led by Mark Chipman and billionaire David Thomson, Canada's richest man and chairman of news and information company Thomson Reuters [TRI.TO]

"I have a deep attachment to the city, the province, the country," said Thomson.

"There's a heartfelt sense of community in Winnipeg and in Manitoba. I've always felt inspired by the leadership, by the ambitions and it has been more than a tinge of regret in me, as in all other Winnipegers and Manitobans that the Jets left.

"We feel very, very, very strongly...about the possibilities that lie ahead. To actually move something forward that is distinctive and it makes a difference in people's lives.

"So I am committed to this community as I am to this country. It's about time."

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