ATLANTA — First, the Flames. Now, the Thrashers.
The struggling NHL franchise was sold Tuesday to a group that will move it to Winnipeg next season, making Atlanta the first city in the league's modern era to lose two teams.
The Flames left for Calgary in 1980. The Thrashers are following them to Canada three decades later.
"I want to thank all the Thrashers fans that supported us in Atlanta for my two years there. Very unfortunate there will be no NHL hockey," tweeted Evander Kane, one of the team's most promising young players. "I will miss the great people and city of Atlanta."
True North Sports and Entertainment announced the deal during a news conference at Winnipeg's MTS Centre, the 15,015-seat arena where the team will play. The news sparked a raucous celebration in Manitoba's largest city, which is rejoining the league after losing the Jets to Phoenix in 1996.
The new team could also be known as the Jets, though a decision on the name has not been reached. The Thrashers name - which was coined by former owner Ted Turner and referred to the state bird of Georgia - will surely not be going north of the border.
Thousands of fans in red, white and blue Jets jerseys cheered, waved flags and played impromptu games of street hockey. While the deal is subject to approval of the league owners, that's expected to be a mere formality when the board of governors meets June 21 in New York.
"It's nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who attended the True North news conference.
In Atlanta, there was little reaction other than a tearful news conference held by co-owner Michael Gearon. He said the group that controls the Thrashers, the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and operating rights to Philips Arena did all it could to find someone who would help keep the financially ailing team in the city.
No one made a serious offer.
"I've been focused on trying to avoid this day," said Gearon, who was glassy eyed and broke down several times as he met with a small group of media at Philips Arena. "I spent time with possible investors going back four years ago, because I was concerned this day would come. I made a desperate plea in February. Unfortunately, that didn't lead to any real prospects. To be sitting here today is just awful for me."
The Thrashers made only one playoff appearance in 11 seasons and never won a postseason game. The ownership was plagued by financial problems and attendance became a major issue in recent years. The Thrashers averaged less than 14,000 a game this season, ranking 28th out of 30 teams.
The group known as Atlanta Spirit decided to bail out of the hockey business. Three weeks ago, after Glendale, Ariz., voted to subsidize the Phoenix Coyotes for another season while that troubled team tries to secure new ownership, True North turned its attention to the Thrashers.
The deal is reportedly worth $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee that would be split by the rest of the owners.
"Our spirit is back!" said Winnipeg's Braden Hill, decked out in a Jets jersey and hockey helmet, a Canadian flag draped on his back. "Our city lost it 15 years ago. Now it's back."
The Coyotes are now owned by the league and likely would have returned to Winnipeg if suburban Glendale had not agreed to provide a $25 million subsidy for this year, then approved another for the 2011-12 season while the team tries to finalize an agreement with a prospective new owner.
In Atlanta, where the financially strapped city government is dealing with possible layoffs, there was never any consideration of bailing out the hockey team.
Bettman said the league didn't want to leave Atlanta, a metro area with more than 5 million people and a more favorable TV market than Winnipeg, a city of less than 700,000. But, he added, there was no other option.
The deal was finalized early Tuesday.
"We don't like to move a franchise," Bettman said. "We're not happy about leaving Atlanta. This was never about whether Winnipeg is better than Atlanta. The decision to come to Winnipeg was only made after the Atlanta ownership made the decision they were going to sell even if it meant the club was going to leave Atlanta."
Efforts to sell the Thrashers locally or bring in new investors were hampered by a long-running dispute within the ownership group. A settlement was finally reached in December to buy out Boston-based Steve Belkin, who had broken with other owners in 2005 after he objected to the signing of Hawks star Joe Johnson.
Also, any potential owner would have become a tenant at Philips Arena, a major impediment because it would cut into much-needed revenue from sources such as concessions, parking, luxury suites and other events.