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Atlanta Thrashers moving to Winnipeg next season

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The NHL announced in a news conference Tuesday that a Canadian group has an agreement in place to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers and move the team to Winnipeg, Manitoba, next season.

The sale to True North Sports and Entertainment is subject to the approval of the NHL’s board of governors, which will meet June 21 in New York. Overcoming that last hurdle, Commissioner Gary Bettman said, is largely contingent upon the sale of 13,000 season tickets.

“We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn’t left in 1996,” Bettman said Tuesday at Winnipeg’s MTS Centre, which will house the new team. “The best way for our fans here in Winnipeg to celebrate the opportunity, is to buy season tickets. . . . This isn’t going to work very well if this building isn’t sold out every night.”

It is believed that the yet-to-be named team, which brings the NHL back to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence, will compete in the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference for at least a year as the league looks at possible realignment for the 2012-13 season.

If that proves to be the case, the Washington Capitals will lose one division opponent while gaining a much more distant foe, at least for the 2011-12 season.

Teams play opponents within their division a total of six times during the regular season, with the contests split evenly between home and away. Washington’s three visits to Winnipeg will require a 2,460-mile round-trip flight from Washington Dulles International Airport. The Capitals will have the shortest distance to travel from their home city of the four remaining teams in the Southeast, though, while the Florida Panthers will have the longest journey at 3,760 miles round trip.

Capitals officials were not made available to comment on the move or the impact of possibly facing a new division opponent in a different time zone might have on the team or its schedule. “The NHL advised us to refrain from commenting,” a team spokesman said.

Coach Bruce Boudreau was asked about the possibility of road trips to Winnipeg during an interview with Toronto’s CJCL (590 AM) on Tuesday, however.

“Assuming they would be in our division at least another year,” Boudreau said, “I’m looking forward to seeing what the schedule looks like.”

While the new team in Winnipeg would undoubtedly face the toughest schedule of any club impacted by its presence in the East, that does little to dampen the celebration in Manitoba. The Canadian province has been without an NHL team since the Winnipeg Jets, which competed for 17 years beginning in 1979, were moved to Phoenix in 1996.

“True North, our city and our province, has received the call we’ve long since been waiting for,” True North Chairman Mark Chipman said when announcing the acquisition of the Thrashers. Chipman said his group made a presentation to the league’s executive board of governors in 2007 to show that Winnipeg was a viable NHL market.

If approved by the board of governors, which must have a 75 percent vote to confirm the sale of the Thrashers franchise and a 50 percent vote for relocation, Winnipeg will give the NHL seven Canadian teams.

Meanwhile, the sale of the Thrashers marks the second time in NHL history that a team has departed Atlanta. The Thrashers never won a playoff game in their 11-year history, but they lasted longer in Georgia than the league’s first attempt to establish a team there.

The Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary in 1980 after only eight seasons. No other city in the United States has lost a professional sports franchise to Canada once, let alone twice.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Thrashers owners said in court documents that the team has lost $130 million since 2005.

Capitals note: According to a report from Russian newspaper Sovetsky Sport, Washington prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov will remain in Russia for another year after signing a one-year contract with Traktor of the Kontinental Hockey League.

A Capitals spokesman said that the team is “fine” with that decision, and that the 19-year-old Kuznetsov, a first-round draft pick in 2010, told the Capitals after his selection that he would need two years of development before playing in the NHL. Kuznetsov, who underwent successful shoulder surgery in April, will not attend the Capitals’ development camp in July, the team spokesman said.

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