While negotiations between the Atlanta Spirit and True North Sports and Entertainment continue, no deal has been reached to sell the Thrashers and relocate the team to Winnipeg.
Despite a published report Thursday night saying a deal was done and would be announced Tuesday, officials with the Thrashers, True North and the NHL said no such agreement has been reached.
Several Thrashers officials told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday that the report was unfounded. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that a high-ranking True North official denied the report.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking earlier in the day on NHL Live, said 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 here.
“We get reports, speculation, that the team’s gone. And there’s no deal,” Bettman said. “I can tell you that with 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.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly also issued a denial. “The Board has not been asked to consider nor approve any transaction involving the sale and/or possible relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers’ franchise. Any suggestion to the contrary is entirely untrue.”
The Thrashers and True North have been in active negotiations, as reported by the AJC. The team is also searching for a buyer willing to keep the team in Atlanta. However with time running out to find local ownership, a deal with True North could be reached in the near future. A move to relocate the franchise would have to be made soon in order to begin play next season.
Bettman said the NHL always wants to keep a team in its current market but must have an owner to operate it there.
“The decision as to whether or not to move a club doesn’t come out of looking at two markets and saying, ‘This market would be better than that market,’” he said. “We try to keep our clubs where they are. And if it is ultimately determined that a club has to move, generally the reason . . . is because nobody wants to own a team there anymore, nobody wants to fund the losses and [the current owner] can’t find a buyer.”
The Thrashers’ ownership group has said that it faces a “sense of urgency” to shed the team’s operating losses and that if a buyer can’t be found to keep the team in Atlanta, relocation is a possibility.
The first two callers to Bettman’s show, broadcast on satellite radio and the Internet, were Thrashers fans. The first said Atlanta will support a hockey team if ownership meets the fans halfway by putting a competitive product on the ice.
“I understand and respect that,” Bettman said, “but the key to this may be, in the final analysis, whether or not somebody wants to own the team in Atlanta. In the absence of either the current ownership group continuing to own and operate or somebody stepping forward who wants to buy the club, that becomes the situation that concerns us or any sports league.
“We’ll only leave a market - in this case Atlanta, picking up on the caller’s statements – if we have to. And hopefully the current ownership group will figure a way out of this that makes sense for everybody,” he said.
The caller told Bettman that the Thrashers drew strong crowds in their first five seasons and that a fan rally will be held Saturday to show support for the team.
Noting that the Thrashers have ranked near the bottom of the league in attendance the past two seasons, Bettman said: “I understand that there may be dissatisfaction there, but demonstrating your dissatisfaction by not going to games is an interesting strategy. It’s your absolute right. But if it becomes a turnoff for anybody who might want to buy the franchise, the long-term consequences could be severe.
“It will be interesting to see how many people show up at the rally on Saturday,” Bettman said.
He declined to put a deadline on a decision about whether the team will be moved.
“Obviously, as it relates to next season, time is getting short,” he said. “We have to do a schedule. We’re doing a schedule with our broadcast partners; we have to have it done for clubs by the end of June. And it’s not something you can do in 28 or 48 hours.”
- Staff writer Tim Tucker contributed to this report.