True North Denies Reported Deal For Thrashers, But Agreement Could Be Imminent
True North Sports & Entertainment Thursday night denied a report "stating that the group has reached an agreement to buy the Atlanta Thrashers," according to Gary Lawless of the WINNIPEG FREE PRESS. A "high-ranking True North official involved in negotiations to buy the Thrashers" said the report was "100 per cent untrue." But Lawless cites sources as saying that a deal "could be reached at any moment that will be conditional on league approval." Sources said that "progress has been made and a deal could be reached in the coming days but nothing has been signed." A source added that the NHL BOG "will not approve a deal to move the franchise to Winnipeg until a test-market ticket drive is completed and they are satisfied the market is viable." It is "expected True North will ask for three-year commitments for season-ticket packages." How many tickets "the league will need to see sold in order to bless this move is unknown but it will certainly be greater than 10,000" (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, 5/20). In the initial report, the GLOBE & MAIL's Stephen Brunt cites sources as saying that preparations are "being made for an announcement Tuesday, confirming the sale and transfer of the Thrashers" to True North. MTS Centre, which along with the AHL Manitoba Moose is operated by True North, "would become the NHL team's new home." Much of the "talk this spring had centered on" the Coyotes relocating to Winnipeg. But city sources said that the Thrashers "had in fact been the primary target of potential owners Mark Chipman and David Thompson all along." Sources noted that NHL BOG "some months back ... quietly approved the sale and transfer of the team, pending the negotiation of a purchase agreement between Atlanta Spirit LLC, the Thrashers' owners, and True North." Brunt reports the Winnipeg owners also have reached an agreement "with the Manitoba government which will allow revenues from a sport bar with a slot machine to be used for improvements to the arena, and to be used towards the debt service on the building" (GLOBE & MAIL, 5/20).
NOT DONE YET: NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly in an e-mail said, "As far as we know, there is nothing done. And certainly, the board has not approved anything" (CP, 5/20). THE HOCKEY NEWS' Ken Campbell cites a source as saying that "all sides can accurately say that a deal is not complete, despite the fact that all signs appear to the Atlanta Spirit LLC and True North reaching agreement in principle to sell the team" for $170M. A source said that still to be determined is "how much of that purchase price goes to the Atlanta Spirit." It "has been widely reported that the purchase price of the team is $110 million, with an additional $60 million going to the NHL in the form of a relocation fee." However, Atlanta Spirit co-Owner Bruce Levenson apparently "wants a bigger piece of the purchase price and is trying to get a portion of that $60 million from the NHL." It is thought that the league "not only wants the $60 million relocation fee, but a portion of the $110 million purchase price" (THEHOCKEYNEWS.com, 5/20). NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman Thursday said that "no deal has been made to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg -- and criticized reports of a possible move." However, he "did not rule out relocation unless someone steps forward to own the team" in Atlanta. Bettman: "We get reports, speculation, that the team is gone. And there's no deal. I can tell you with that certainty that there is no deal for this team to move. Am I predicting that there will never be or that there won't be at some point in time? No, I'm not saying there is or there isn't" (AJC.com, 5/19). An NHL source said that it is "'highly unlikely' an announcement like the relocation of a franchise would take place during the Stanley Cup playoffs" (WINNIPEG SUN, 5/20). In Toronto, Zwolinski & McGran cite an NHL agent as saying that Thrashers players "have been 'quietly' told to start personal [plans] to relocate out of Atlanta" (TORONTO STAR, 5/20).
QUEBEC GOT NEXT? Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume Thursday revealed that Quebecor Inc. President & CEO Pierre Karl Peladeau "is talking to the National Hockey League about bringing a team back" to the city (Montreal GAZETTE, 5/20). Meanwhile, the GLOBE & MAIL's Sean Gordon notes Labeaume "had been pressing" the National Assembly of Quebec "to pass a law insulating the arena management contract his administration signed with Quebecor a few weeks ago from vexatious lawsuits." Opposition party Parti Quebecois "agreed to sponsor such a bill," but it "would have required unanimous consent to be tabled given the deadline for private member's legislation has passed." However, two politicians "have refused to give their consent, so that's it until the legislature opens a new session in the fall." The move is a "repudiation of sorts for Labeaume, who argued that a threatened lawsuit by a former city manager would scare off the NHL" (GLOBE & MAIL, 5/20).
HEADED BACK HOME: In Toronto, Damien Cox writes it "seems very possible that Canada could in the next few years regain its former complement of eight NHL franchises, or perhaps more." The NHL, "which not so long ago seemed disinterested in Canada, suddenly needs the birthplace of the game more than ever." Quebec City is "once again looking for a team after unveiling plans to build a new rink, and there appears to be no shortage of struggling money-losing U.S. teams interested in moving north, with no new American cities clamouring for teams" (TORONTO STAR, 5/20).