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NHL gives OK for Thrashers to move to Winnipeg

NEW YORK (AP) - If ticket sales and optimism count, the former Thrashers franchise is going to do a whole lot better in Winnipeg than it ever did in 13 years in Atlanta.

What was all but inevitable after the team changed hands a few weeks ago became reality on Tuesday when the sale of the Thrashers and the relocation of the club to Winnipeg were unanimously approved by the NHL's board of governors.

"They deserve it," New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello said. "Another team in Canada, everyone is excited about it. I think it's going to work out fantastic."

The Thrashers' move makes seven teams north of the border. That reverses a recent trend in which teams shifted to the United States from Canada. The last time a club relocated into Canada was 31 years ago when Atlanta's first NHL team, the Flames, moved to Calgary.

Seven of the NHL's 30 franchises are located in Canada. With two failed hockey teams, Atlanta isn't likely to get another chance anytime soon.

"It's going to be tough," said Thrashers president Don Waddell, who has been with the team since the beginning but won't be joining it in Winnipeg. "Sports in general have been tough in Atlanta. I can't say it's finished forever, but they've had two tries at it now and it's been difficult for all ownership groups to make it work."

From general manager to coach to team president, Waddell endured the ups and downs _ mostly downs _ as the franchise struggled on and off the ice.

After only one playoff appearance that produced no wins, Tuesday was the day for Waddell and Atlanta to say goodbye to its hockey team.

Again.

"We've been through the emotions and the frustrations the last few weeks, but when I look back and being there 13 years, it's been a great run," said Waddell, who served as the team's first GM until the 2009-10 season. "Since '98 when I got hired, there are only four general managers that are currently with their teams.

"You've got to look at the positives. To be able to stay in one place for so long, it's been tremendous for me."

The same can't be said of the team that once featured star players such as Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa, but couldn't keep them for one reason or another.

True North Sports and Entertainment bought the team last month and announced it was bringing the Thrashers to Winnipeg, which lost the Jets to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season.

"Everybody is sorry and distressed and unhappy that we found ourselves in the circumstance where our franchise was leaving Atlanta," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We're particularly sorry for the fans that are there, but obviously based on the reception that we've gotten, everybody is extremely excited about the opportunities in Winnipeg for our return."

The sale is reportedly for $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee that will be split by the rest of the owners. The Thrashers are the fifth NHL team to move since Bettman became commissioner in 1993.

"It's a sad day for hockey fans in Atlanta, but the franchise is going to a good place and run by good people," Waddell said.

The NHL is giving up an American market that has more than 5 million people in the metro Atlanta area and heading to Winnipeg, which will be the league's smallest market with the smallest arena.

The team will play in the 15,015-seat MTS Center, but in a wave of enthusiasm, the club sold-out 13,000 season tickets in a matter of minutes earlier this month when they were made available days after the sale was announced.

Still, the team will have to win if that excitement is going to be sustained past the first few years.

"Winnipeg could've sold the building out three times," Toronto general manager Brian Burke said. "It's not a sprint, owning and operating and supporting a professional sports franchise. The first five years aren't your challenge. There is always a rush of euphoria, there's a rush of patriotism that we're going to support this team.

"I believe in the marketplace, but everyone in Winnipeg has to support this team. It's far from over."

In other news from Tuesday's meeting, the board approved two amendments to rules regarding player safety. The year-old Rule 48 will now apply to all hits that target the head of an opponent, and not only those from the blindside. Also, boarding infractions will be treated more severely. Players must let up on hits into the boards that might not necessarily be violent, but are deemed dangerous _ including pushes.

Bettman said next year's salary-cap figure still needs to be finalized with the players' union, but it is expected to rise from $59.4 million to about $63 million or $64 million. It has increased every year since its inception of $39 million after the 2004-05 lockout.

The Thrashers made the playoffs in 2007, but were swept in four games by the New York Rangers. Atlanta had only one season in which it won more games than it lost. Now the Thrashers will be a footnote in hockey history.

Although the Winnipeg franchise has yet to pick a name, it will not be the Thrashers. The club will bear no resemblance to the one that briefly called Atlanta home.

Waddell, general manager Rick Dudley and coach Craig Ramsay won't make the move to Manitoba. Dudley completed just one year of a four-year deal after he replaced Waddell, and Ramsay was one year into a two-year contract.

The Thrashers' ownership dealt with major financial problems and declining attendance in recent years. The team had the league's third-worst attendance last season, averaging fewer than 14,000 a game.

"They certainly made every effort they possibly could to have it work. It didn't work," Lamoriello said.

Winnipeg had set its sights on the troubled Phoenix Coyotes, hoping to bring back the former Jets, but that team was saved last month for at least another season in the desert after the city of Glendale, Ariz. _ where the club's arena is located _ voted to subsidize the team as it seeks a new owner.

Canadian billionaire David Thomson, who heads the Winnipeg ownership group along with Mark Chipman, went hard after an NHL team when the Coyotes and the Thrashers fell into serious financial trouble.

Thrashers co-owner Michael Gearon and the rest of the Atlanta Spirit group came under heavy criticism for the way they ran the team, especially when it was revealed in court documents they were looking to sell the club almost as soon as they acquired it in 2004.

Gearon said they have lost $130 million since taking over the franchise _ including $20 million in 2006-07, the year the Thrashers won the Southeast Division and made the playoffs.

This season, the Thrashers were in contention for a playoff spot but faded down the stretch.

Now they have faded to black.

___

AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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