SBD/June 1, 2011/Franchises

True North Announces Thrashers Purchase, Intention To Move Team To Winnipeg

Bettman says robust season-ticket sales necessary for success in Winnipeg

True North Sports & Entertainment Chair Mark Chipman yesterday formally announced the group’s purchase of the Thrashers and its intent to move the team to Winnipeg. “Our city and our province has received the call we've long since been waiting for,” Chipman said. The purchase is still pending and requires a 75% vote of approval by the NHL BOG, which meets in N.Y. on June 21. The move will be the NHL’s first since the Whalers left Hartford for North Carolina in '97. The group has not decided on a name for the club, which will play at the 15,015-seat MTS Centre. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the transaction was finalized early yesterday morning, and that decision was made because Thrashers owner Atlanta Spirit could not find a suitable buyer in Atlanta. “With the celebration here, there is obviously regret about what is happening in Atlanta,” Bettman said. True North has set out to sell 13,000 season tickets before the June 21 BOG meeting. Season tickets go on sale today to AHL Manitoba Moose season-ticket holders and corporate partners, and on Saturday to the general public. True North CEO Jim Ludlow said the 13,000 ticket mark is not being imposed by the NHL. Bettman said robust season-ticket sales are necessary for a franchise to work in Winnipeg. “It doesn’t work if this building isn’t full every night,” Bettman said (Fred Dreier, SportsBusiness Journal). Package prices, per game, range from C$39-129 -- a total of C$1,755-$5,805 per 45-game season (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, 6/1). True North is "seeking between a three- and five-year commitment" from ticket buyers (WINNIPEG SUN, 6/1). USA TODAY's Kevin Allen reports the "purchase price was $170 million, which includes a $60 million relocation fee that goes to the NHL" (USA TODAY, 6/1). 

REALIGNMENT BATTLE: A league source said that the NHL "will not realign its divisions for the 2011-12 season, meaning Winnipeg will play in the Southeast" (ESPN.com, 5/31). However, in Ottawa, Bruce Garrioch notes the "battle over realignment is set to begin in earnest." League sources said that Bettman "faces a battle in the boardroom with three teams angling to move into the Eastern Conference to replace" the Thrashers. The Red Wings, Blue Jackets and Predators "all want to move." An NHL exec said, "This is going to be a huge fight" (OTTAWA SUN, 6/1). Red Wings Senior VP Jim Devellano said, "I can assure you that Commissioner Gary Bettman knows (owner) Mike Ilitch's thoughts on this. I guess all I can say is that we have our fingers crossed" (USA TODAY, 6/1). In Raleigh, Luck DeCock writes, "The NHL has millions of reasons to keep the Red Wings and the Blackhawks in the same division -- it's one of the matchups Versus and NBC like" (Raleigh NEWS & OBSERVER, 6/1).

MOVING UP NORTH: The CP's Chris Johnston noted, "Moving to a hockey hotbed from one where the sport was rarely in the spotlight, the Thrashers are expecting a little bit of culture shock now that they've landed in Winnipeg." Thrashers G Ondrej Pavelec: "It's four sports in Atlanta and we were No. 4 I think. The people in Atlanta like baseball, they like American football. ... Everyone knows we had problems (getting) the fans to watch our games. I think for hockey it's a good thing." Thrashers G Chris Mason said, "Next year it's going to be hockey, hockey, hockey. I just love that. I think it's going to be awesome" (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, 6/1). Mason added, "I'm just excited to know NHL hockey is coming back to a city that has always wanted hockey. They never wanted it to leave. But circumstances there were out of the fans' control, as they are now for fans in Atlanta. It's not their fault; they really had no say in this" (USA TODAY, 6/1). 

NOT GUARANTEED SUCCESS: ESPN.com's Scott Burnside wrote, "For all the flag-waving that the impending move of the Thrashers to Winnipeg has generated throughout Canada (or at least in much of the Canadian media), Winnipeg is a small outpost city in an unforgiving prairie. Players will not flock to play there. That is the reality." Winnipeg has a "fraction of the corporate community that Atlanta has and even a fraction of the corporate community that beleaguered Phoenix has." It "hardly seems like a guaranteed recipe for success, but that tell you just how badly things have gone in the South" (ESPN.com, 5/31). YAHOO SPORTS' Nicholas Cotsonika wrote, "Make no mistake: This is not what the NHL wanted." Just because the Thrashers will relocate to Winnipeg "does not mean the team will succeed or necessarily even stay for good." Business -- "not nationalism, not romanticism, not anything else -- will determine where this team goes from here, and it faces plenty of challenges and uncertainties" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 5/31). In Montreal, Pat Hickey writes, "Moving the franchise to Canada isn't an instant recipe for success" (Montreal GAZETTE, 6/1).  

PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF: In Winnipeg, Tom Brodbeck writes Chipman and True North "have done a great thing for this city and this province." Brodbeck: "Bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg is easily the single most important development this city has seen in decades. And it wouldn't have happened without the disciplined, measured approach taken by Chipman and his True North partner David Thomson over the past seven years" (WINNIPEG SUN, 6/1). Bettman: "The one thing that I think Mark Chipman demonstrated in this process is quiet, behind-the-scenes patience tends to work better than the alternative" (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, 6/1). Chipman has indicated that his team will be "more Nashville than Detroit, closer to the floor than the ceiling of the salary cap." But "when he sees a chance, he'll go for it" (WINNIPEG SUN, 6/1). Chipman said that he will be "contacting Thrashers GM Rick Dudley in the coming days to discuss the future leadership of the franchise but one thing is certain" -- Moose GM Craig Heisinger will have a "major role" (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, 6/1). Meanwhile, Thrashers President Don Waddell said that he "won't remain" with the team after the sale closes and "isn't sure of his next career move" (ATLANTA CONSTITUTION, 6/1). 

HERO OR VILLIAN? In Winnipeg, Ted Wyman writes under the header, "Bettman Transforms From Villain To Hero." For years he has been "thought of as a villain whose hate for Canada and love for the Southern U.S. was to blame for the demise of NHL hockey in places like Winnipeg and Quebec City." Yet there was Bettman yesterday "proclaiming word many Manitobians never thought he'd utter: The NHL is coming back to Winnipeg." Bettman said, "It was clear that times have changed for Winnipeg as an NHL market and this [is] a wonderful time to add a club to Canada. Hockey in Canada has never been stronger and the NHL has a different economic structure which allows the so-called small-market teams to compete" (WINNIPEG SUN, 6/1). The CP reported thousands gathered in downtown Winnipeg to "watch the announcement on a big screen." Fans "booed and chanted 'Bettman sucks' when he appeared on the screen" (CP, 5/31). 

WHO'S GOT NEXT? In Edmonton, John Mackinnon notes Quebec City is "committed to constructing a state-of-the-art arena in hopes of bringing the NHL back to that city." However, Bettman yesterday said from Winnipeg, "Other communities shouldn't be reading ... what's happening here into any other situation, either with respect to speculation that a franchise may move or that another city is going to get one. That would be a mistake, it would be inaccurate. And so, people shouldn't get their hopes up" (EDMONTON JOURNAL, 6/1). Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume yesterday "lamented how Quebec City is quibbling over the construction of a new arena." Labeaume: "We should be in a blitz with the NHL to make sure we're next on the list (after Winnipeg), but instead, we are here fighting a minority" (Montreal GAZETTE, 6/1). Meanwhile, in Houston, Jeffrey Martin writes the AHL Aeros are "thriving." But Houston Sports Authority Exec Dir Janis Schmees said, "If we're able to bring in a NHL team, we're going to jump at that opportunity." She said that there is "no such movement afoot." But she added that if the NHL "were to settle in Houston with the Toyota Center as its home base," Rockets Owner Les Alexander "would own the team" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 6/1).   

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: AMLAWDAILY.com's Brian Baxter reported Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom banking partner Thomas Gowan advised the NHL on the Thrashers sale. Atlanta Spirit is being advised by DLA Piper corporate and finance partner Charles Baker, while True North is being advised by Robert Lee from Winnipeg-based Aikins, MacAulay & Thorvaldson (AMLAWDAILY.com, 5/31).

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