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A Winnipeg Jets hockey puck is seen at a sports memorabilia store in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 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 - A Winnipeg Jets hockey puck is seen at a sports memorabilia store in Winnipeg, Manitoba, 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 | Reuters

Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg

Globe and Mail Update

An agreement to sell the National Hockey League’s Atlanta Thrashers to a Winnipeg group which plans to relocate the franchise to the Manitoba capital is done.

Sources confirmed tonight that preparations are being made for an announcement Tuesday, confirming the sale and transfer of the Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns and operates the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League and the MTS Centre arena, which would become the NHL team’s new home.

Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, is expected to travel to Winnipeg to make the news official.

The announcement would end months of speculation about whether one of the NHL’s financially-troubled American sunbelt teams might move north, filling the void left when the Winnipeg Jets packed up and left for Phoenix in 1996, where they became the Coyotes.

Much of the talk this spring had centred on that failing franchise, which was bought by the league after being placed in bankruptcy by its former owner Jerry Moyes in 2009.

But sources in Winnipeg suggest that the Thrashers had in fact been the primary target of potential owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson all along, and that some months back, the NHL board of governors 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.

In the meantime, no potential owner materialized who was prepared to keep the team in Georgia, and local governments there showed no interest in propping up the Thrashers.

“There seems to be a consensus there is going to be a team in Winnpeg,” former major league pitcher Tom Glavine, who had tried unsuccessfully to find new ownership for the hockey team in Atlanta, acknowledged last week. ““The question is who, and unfortunately the bullseye seems to be on the Thrashers’ back.”

When it appeared this spring that the Coyotes might also be in play, after a deal to sell the team to Matthew Hulsizer underwritten by a municipal bond issue fell apart in the face of political opposition from the Goldwater Institute, the Winnipeg group sought to take advantage of what suddenly seemed a buyers’ market, with two teams available and no other potential owners or relocations sites on the horizon.

After the City of Glendale agreed to cover $25-million of the Coyotes losses for the 2011-2012 season, and the NHL opted to operate the club in Arizona for at least one more year, True North’s full focus returned to Atlanta, and a deal was hammered out this week.

Even before those final negotiations took place, the potential Winnipeg owners concluded an agreement with the Manitoba government which will allow revenues from a sports bar with slot machine to be used for improvements to the arena, and to be used towards the debt service on the building.

That’s consistent with what Manitoba premier Greg Sellinger told reporters earlier this week, when he said that the provincial government had no interest in subsidizing an NHL team, but that the province had financially supported the renovation of the MTS Centre in the past, and would continue to be willing to do so.