Winnipeg mayor: 'I believe' the Thrashers are coming
Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said he believes a deal has been reached to make his city the new home of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Rumours have abounded in recent weeks that the struggling Thrashers could land in Winnipeg, where the True North Sports and Entertainment group has been seeking to purchase the team.
On Thursday the Globe and Mail reported that a deal had finally been reached, though the report was quickly denied by all groups involved.
"Do I believe an agreement is there? Absolutely," Katz told CTV News Channel.
"I think everyone is telling the truth. There's an agreement, there's an understanding, but you can appreciate that until it's all papered and reviewed by the lawyers it's not a done deal."
The NHL, the Thrashers' current owners and True North have all denied that a deal has been finalized.
But that didn't stop jubilant Winnipeg Jets fans from celebrating in the streets on Thursday night, convinced the reports were true and that the city's 15-year NHL drought is about to end.
Hundreds of hockey fans, many of them wearing vintage Jets jerseys, chanted "We want the Thrashers!" at the downtown intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street Thursday night.
The Jets left Winnipeg in 1996 due to mounting financial troubles, and were relocated to Phoenix, Arizona as the Coyotes.
Katz said he has largely ignored the rumours until now. However, he said the latest report appears credible and "I personally believe this one is true."
"I think the only thing that could happen to basically derail this is for some local ownership group to come up with an offer to keep the team there," Katz said.
He said many Winnipeg residents are still smarting from the departure of the Jets. Though the team had a dedicated and loyal fan base, the franchise's aging and small arena simply wasn't adequate to host an NHL team.
The city's new MTS Centre, which along with the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose is owned by True North, is a much larger and more modern facility and would be adequate to host an NHL team.
The arrival of the Thrashers, Katz said, would go a long way towards healing the wounds left by the Jets' departure.
"For so many people I think a lot of pain will disappear," he said.
Curt Keilback, the former voice of the Winnipeg Jets, said the team will be a real identity boost to the city.
"For Winnipeg it is the jets, it's a hockey town," he said. "Now it's time to take the next step, time for celebration and to rekindle those memories."
Announcement could be Tuesday
The Globe and Mail reported Thursday night that the deal will be officially announced on Tuesday, citing sources who said players have been advised to start looking at housing options in Winnipeg.
Howard Bloom, publisher of Sports Business News, said the report marked "a great day" in Canada -- a country that has long sought to add to its six current NHL franchises.
He said he expects the final details to be announced at a news conference on Tuesday, but cautioned that the deal will require a deep commitment from Winnipeg hockey fans.
"People in Winnipeg are going to reportedly have to buy season tickets, at least 10,000, and make a three-year commitment in order to see this take place," Bloom told CTV's Canada AM. "That will be one of the conditions of the sale, and that's not going to be easy."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday night there was no final deal in place: "I can tell you that with certainty," he said.
The NHL's deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, said "as far as we know, there is nothing done" and added that the NHL's board of governors had not approved anything.
The Globe, however, reported that the deal had been tentatively approved pending the final details of a sale agreement between Atlanta Spirit LLC, which owns the team, and True North Sports and Entertainment.
Scott Brown, spokesperson for True North, said simply "it's not true," when asked about the report that a deal had already been reached.