ATLANTA — There was little reaction in this city to the news Tuesday the Thrashers were sold to a Winnipeg group that will move the team to that city, other than a tearful news conference held by outgoing co-owner Michael Gearon.
Gearon said the ownership group, which also controls the NBA's Hawks and Philips Arena, did all it could to find someone who would help keep the financially ailing team in the city but no one made a serious offer.
"To be sitting here today is just awful for me," said Gearon, who broke down several times as he met with a small group of media at the arena.
The Winnipeg group, True North Sports and Entertainment, announced the deal at a news conference at the city's MTS Centre, where the team will play. The news sparked a raucous celebration in Manitoba's largest city, which rejoins the league after losing the Jets to Phoenix in 1996. No decision has been announced on the team's name.
The league's owners must approve the sale and relocation, but that's expected to be a formality at a June 21 meeting. The deal is reportedly worth $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee the other owners would split.
"It's nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years," said commissioner Gary Bettman at the Winnipeg news conference.
The relocation was allowed only after the Atlanta ownership decided to sell even if meant the team's departure, he said. "We don't like to move a franchise. We're not happy about leaving Atlanta," he said.
The Atlanta owners were heavily criticized for how they ran the Thrashers, who made one playoff appearance in 11 seasons and didn't win a playoff game. The owners were plagued by financial problems, and attendance became a major issue. The team averaged fewer than 14,000 a game this season, 28th out of 30 teams.
The news was bittersweet for the players. They thanked the Atlanta fans on Twitter and in the media, and said they felt bad for them but were excited about playing in Canada.
"It's four sports in Atlanta, and we were No. 4, I think," said Czech goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who has made all 119 of his career appearance as a Thrasher. He told the Canadian Press he likes Atlanta but "the people … like baseball, they like American football. … Everyone knows we had problems (getting) the fans to watch our games. I think for hockey it's a good thing."
lightning connections: The move is expected to result in some conference-division realignment but not for next season. The team is expected to play 2011-12 in the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division with the Lightning and move in 2012-13 to a geographically friendly division in the West. One team from the West then is expected to move to the East (candidates mentioned are Nashville, Detroit and Columbus), but the league is keeping its realignment options open. … The Lightning said a preseason game scheduled in Winnipeg next season will not happen.
Times staff writer Damian Cristodero contributed to this report.