- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

ATLANTA (AP) - Michael Gearon Jr. backed away from the microphones and cameras, overcome by the emotion of a day he hoped would never come for the Atlanta Thrashers.

Gearon and his co-owners had just sold their hockey team to a group in Winnipeg. The Thrashers are heading north of the border, just as the Flames did 31 years ago, making Atlanta a two-time NHL loser.

There won’t be a third chance anytime soon.

“Never is a long time, so I wouldn’t want to say that,” team president Don Waddell said Tuesday. “Obviously, in the short term, it’s not going to happen.”

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 next season. The news sparked a raucous celebration in Manitoba’s largest city, which is rejoining the league after losing the Jets to Phoenix in 1996.

“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. Gearon 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 the 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.”

On the city’s sports-talk stations, there was more discussion about college football and the scandal that cost Ohio State coach Jim Tressel his job than losing an NHL team that, at best, attracted a niche audience.

The Thrashers made only one playoff appearance in 11 seasons and never won a postseason game. The ownership was plagued by internal dispute and financial problems. Attendance became a major issue in recent years, the Thrashers averaging less than 14,000 a game this season to rank 28th out of 30 teams.

Finally, 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. The league owners must give their approval, but that’s expected to be a mere formality when they meet June 21 in New York.

The Thrashers‘ training complex in suburban Duluth was locked up and no one answered the door. Next door, a half-dozen customers ate lunch at the Breakaway Grill, which overlooks the rink where the team practiced and plans to remain open.

“Luckily we’re named the Breakaway Grill. We’re not named the Thrashers Nest or anything like that,” said Rhashida Chandler, who works as a bartender and server.

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