Thrashers' move to Winnipeg approved
NEW YORK -- Don Waddell has been through it all with the Atlanta Thrashers since they entered the NHL in 1999.
From general manager to coach to team president, Waddell endured the ups and downs -- mostly downs -- as the franchise struggled on and off the ice.
After 13 years and only one playoff appearance that produced no wins, Tuesday was the day for Waddell and Atlanta to say goodbye to its second hockey team.
We're particularly sorry for the fans that are (in Atlanta), but obviously based on the reception that we've gotten, everybody is extremely excited about the opportunities in Winnipeg for our return.” -- Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner
The NHL board of governors unanimously approved the sale and relocation of the Thrashers to Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Tuesday, clearing the final big hurdle in the process.
"We've been through the emotions and the frustrations the last few weeks, but when I look back and being there 13 years, it's been a great run," said Waddell, who served as general manager from the start until the 2009-10 season. "Since '98 when I got hired, there are only four general managers that are currently with their teams.
"You've got to look at the positives. To be able to stay in one place for so long, it's been tremendous for me," he said.
True North Sports and Entertainment bought the team last month and announced it was bringing the Thrashers to Winnipeg, which lost the Jets to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season.
"Obviously, everybody is sorry and distressed and unhappy that we found ourselves in the circumstance where our franchise was leaving Atlanta," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We're particularly sorry for the fans that are there, but obviously based on the reception that we've gotten, everybody is extremely excited about the opportunities in Winnipeg for our return."
The sale is reportedly for $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee that will be split by the rest of the owners. The Thrashers are the fifth NHL team to move since Bettman became commissioner in 1993.
Following the Flames, who moved to Calgary 31 years ago, the Thrashers are the second NHL team to leave Atlanta. Those clubs are also the last two teams to relocate to Canada. Seven of the league's 30 teams reside north of the border.
"It's a sad day for hockey fans in Atlanta, but the franchise is going to a good place and run by good people," Waddell said. "Sports in general have been tough in Atlanta. I can't say (hockey) is finished forever ... but they've had two tries at it now and it's been difficult for all ownership groups to make it work.
"College football in the South is like hockey in Canada. It's the No. 1 sport. When UGA plays football on a Saturday, the party starts on Thursday. We've got a lot of competition in the marketplace," he said.
The NHL is giving up an American market that has more than 5 million people in the metro Atlanta area and heading to Winnipeg, which will be the league's smallest market with the smallest arena.
The team will play in the 15,015-seat MTS Center, but in a wave of enthusiasm, the club sold out 13,000 season tickets in a matter of minutes earlier this month once they were made available days after the sale was announced.
The Thrashers made the playoffs in 2007 but were swept in four games by the New York Rangers. Atlanta had only one season in which it won more games than it lost. Now the Thrashers will be a footnote in hockey history.
Although the Winnipeg franchise has yet to pick a name, it will not be the Thrashers. The club will bear no resemblance to the one that briefly called Atlanta home.
It's nice to have Winnipeg back in the big show. It's not a slam dunk. Everyone in Winnipeg has to support this team.” -- Brian Burke, Maple Leafs GM
Waddell, general manager Rick Dudley and coach Craig Ramsay won't make the move to Manitoba. Dudley completed just one year of a four-year deal after he replaced Waddell, and Ramsay was one year into a two-year contract.
The Thrashers' ownership dealt with major financial problems and declining attendance in recent years. The team had the league's third-worst attendance last season, averaging fewer than 14,000 a game.
"They certainly made every effort they possibly could to have it work. It didn't work," New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello said. "Winnipeg is excited, the league is excited right now. What they have been able to do there in a short period of time is just tremendous."
Winnipeg had set its sights on the troubled Phoenix Coyotes, hoping to bring back the former Jets, but that team was saved last month for at least another season in the desert after the city of Glendale, Ariz. -- where the club's arena is located -- voted to subsidize the team as it seeks a new owner.
Canadian billionaire David Thomson, who heads the Winnipeg ownership group along with Mark Chipman, went hard after an NHL team when the Coyotes and the Thrashers fell into serious financial trouble.
The Coyotes are owned by the NHL and likely would have returned to Winnipeg if Glendale hadn't agreed to provide a $25 million subsidy for this year and then approved another for the 2011-12 season while the team tries to complete an agreement with a prospective new owner.
That kind of deal was never an option for Atlanta.
"People are pretty excited about putting a team back in Winnipeg," Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. "There are some challenges in the market, but I think everyone is pretty comfortable that everyone can and will meet those challenges.
"It's nice to have Winnipeg back in the big show. It's not a slam dunk. Everyone in Winnipeg has to support this team," he said.
Thrashers co-owner Michael Gearon and the rest of the Atlanta Spirit group came under heavy criticism for the way they ran the team, especially when it was revealed in court documents they were looking to sell the club almost as soon as they acquired it in 2004.
Gearon said they have lost $130 million since taking over the franchise -- including $20 million in 2006-07, the year the Thrashers won the Southeast Division and made the playoffs.
This season, the Thrashers were in contention for a playoff spot but faded down the stretch.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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