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Complex NHL deal goes down to wire in Winnipeg

A hockey fan cheers at the corner of Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg after media reports of the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team moving to Winnipeg, May 19, 2011. After years of false starts and false hope, hockey-obsessed Canada may finally reclaim its lost NHL team as speculation heated up this week that the league is set to return to Winnipeg 15 years after it left. REUTERS/Shaun Best

Shaun Best/Reuters

As fans celebrated and players wondered where they would be living next season, deal makers continued work late Friday on a complicated transaction that would bring a National Hockey League franchise to Winnipeg for the first time in a generation.

Atlanta Spirit, LLC and True North Sports & Entertainment are negotiating the sale and transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers, though the complex deal involving several parties in both countries had yet to be finalized. Lawyers were planning to work through the weekend. A previously planned news conference for Tuesday in Winnipeg may now be delayed, sources say.

Once a purchase agreement is arranged, it must go to the NHL board of governors for approval. The Thrashers would begin play in the 2011-12 season, while the current occupants of the MTS Centre, the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, are to be transferred to another Canadian city.

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Winnipeg lost its NHL team in 1996 when the Jets moved to Phoenix and were renamed the Coyotes. True North reportedly would pay $110-million for the club and another $60-million to the league as a relocation fee.

Mayor Sam Katz, who said recently that the Phoenix Coyotes would not be moved back to Winnipeg, declared on Friday that a deal to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg has become inevitable.

"It's long overdue," Katz said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "The Jets never should have left here ... After 15 years, we'll all be ecstatic to have them back. There is no doubt that the fan base is there. The corporate support is there."

There was no comment from True North chairman Mark Chipman.

The Thrashers owners, a group known as Atlanta Spirit, LLC, claim $130-million in losses since 2005 and have made it clear they no longer want the NHL team, which has made the playoffs only once in 11 seasons and ranked 28th out of 30 teams in attendance this year.

"Nothing new," co-owner Bruce Levenson said Friday.

NHL officials also were tightlipped.

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"No concrete developments at this point," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. "Won't comment on likelihood or things that might flow from agreement unless or until it's reached."

Meanwhile, the players have been given no indication one way or the other where they'll be playing home games next season, according to goaltender Chris Mason.

"They're not going to include us in any of the stuff and we shouldn't be either," Mason said Friday from his off-season home in Red Deer, Alta. "We're sitting on the edge of our seats waiting to see what's going to happen, too."

The players who would move to Winnipeg will have to adjust to being a big fish in a small pond after the opposite experience in Atlanta, according to Dale Hawerchuk, the former Winnipeg Jet who today coaches the major junior Barrie Colts in Ontario.

"Atlanta Thrasher players, when they walk around Atlanta nobody knows them," he said. "They walk around anywhere in Manitoba or Winnipeg and everyone is going to know them.

"That changes the dynamics of your job. Accountability starts to rise with that."

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Meantime, a rally was scheduled for Saturday outside Philips Arena in conjunction with a select-a-seat event for current and prospective season-ticket holders, scheduled to go on as planned despite the franchise's cloudy future.

"We're going to go have a good time and hang out with our hockey family," said Lisa Lewis, president of the Thrashers fan club. "If it's our last time, well, at least we get that chance."

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press.

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