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Winnipeg finally returning to NHL fold

Welcome home. It has been awhile.

No, these are not the ex-Winnipeg Jets whose repatriation will be made official today at a late morning press conference, though they may well reclaim the name. Instead it is another unloved National Hockey League franchise that will be moving north to Manitoba for next season, to be celebrated almost unanimously.

Just a technicality, that - like the ones lawyers have been ironing out for the past week and a half, after the owners of the Atlanta Thrashers agreed to sell their team to Mark Chipman and David Thomson, whose family company is controlling shareholder of the Globe and Mail..

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In every way that matters, this feels like a reconnection of club, and city, and country.

Back in 1996, it seemed like the NHL was outgrowing places like Winnipeg. The Jets didn't have a willing owner, they couldn't get a new rink built, the Canadian dollar was ailing, but it was bigger than that, it was about destiny, and inevitablility, and the free market holding sway.

Professional hockey as a business was evolving too fast for places like the 'Peg. The sale of Wayne Gretzky by Peter Pocklington to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 had set forces in motion which weren't going to be turned back by any number of broken-hearted fans gathering at The Forks.

The NHL's newly-defined destiny lay in populous, fast-growing places in the United States sunbelt which registered with American television networks, and which had no cultural or historical - or climatic - attachment to the sport. Just lots of people, presumably with lots of disposable income, who would eventually be persuaded of hockey's allure, just like the glittery crowds who filled the Fabulous Forum when the Great One came to town.

That was the plan hatched by Bruce McNall, the Kings' owner who acquired Gretzky, who would become the chairman of the NHL's board of governors, and who would eventually go to jail. The commissioner he hired, Gary Bettman, was charged with executing it.

And when small market holdovers from the World Hockey Association, the Jets and Quebec Nordiques, floundered trying to stay afloat in that new NHL, they became puzzle pieces, to be popped into open spaces in Phoenix and Denver, fitting in perfectly with the grand scheme.

You can be certain that the day Bettman and the league he still operates turned their backs on Winnipeg, they never, ever expected to return.

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They do so, now, reluctantly. They have no choice.

The Thrashers' owners, having lost tens of millions of dollars, having already suffered through a season-killing lockout that was supposed to have created a fail safe business model and didn't, having given up the hunt for anyone who would take the team off their hands and keep it where it was, expanded their search for buyers.

There was precisely one: the patient group in Winnipeg, who had a newish and smallish arena, who were willing to pay a price far beyond the franchise's true market value, who were willing to play by whatever rules the league chose to impose, and all the while remain quiet and grateful and deferential.

So really, the NHL's return to Winnipeg had become every bit as inevitable as its exit, something which the league's hierarchy quietly acknowledged when it green-lighted discussions to sell and relocate the franchise. (They also added a little something for themselves, inventing a "relocation fee" out of thin air, which they could skim off the top like a bookie's vigorish.)

On May 20, the Atlanta owners and the potential Winnipeg owners agreed on a term sheet and framework for the sale, and stakeholders were put on alert to expect a press conference the following Tuesday. Some of those directly involved in the deal were prepared to declare it done.

But when that story went public, and Winnipeggers immediately began dancing in the streets, others became nervous, because t's remained to be crossed and i's dotted - and if there's one thing a potential NHL owner isn't supposed to do, it is cause the league and its commissioner embarrassment, or duress, or create public confusion as to who is in charge of the process.

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So everyone went into lockdown mode. No announcement was made. Information became scarce. Crazy rumours circulated about "mystery buyers" lurking in Atlanta. The same Winnipeg fans who had celebrated became understandably nervous, having been left at the altar before.

The homecoming is now imminent, and no, long-term success is not assured. Even in the new new NHL, with a par dollar and Canadian hockey passions if anything stronger than ever, squeezing out the necessary revenues won't be easy.

But that's for another day.

Today is for reunions, for a fond and long-awaited embrace.

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About the Author
Sports columnist

Hamilton-born Stephen Brunt started at The Globe as an arts intern in 1982, after attending journalism school at the University of Western Ontario. He then worked in news, covering the 1984 election, and began to write for the sports section in 1985. His 1988 series on negligence and corruption in boxing won him the Michener award for public service journalism. More

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