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They claim to have lost $130 million since taking over the franchise _ including $20 million in 2006-07, Gearon said, the year the Thrashers won the Southeast Division and made the playoffs with the only winning record in franchise history. They were swept in four straight games by the New York Rangers.

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

Now, they’ll be playing in a new city.

“I’m really excited,” goalie Chris Mason told The Associated Press from his hometown of Red Deer, Alberta. “I remember growing up watching the Jets and I’m just excited to know NHL hockey is coming back to a city that has always wanted hockey.

“They never wanted it to leave,” he added. “But circumstances there were out of the fans control, as they are now for fans in Atlanta. It’s not their fault. They really had no say in this. You kind of feel bad for those people, but at the same time I’m excited for Winnipeg.”

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.

Late last week, Thrashers President Don Waddell raised the prospect that someone could still emerge to buy the team _ at a greatly reduced price _ to keep it in Atlanta.

On Tuesday, Waddell acknowledged that effort is over.

“The deal signed today is the deal that’s in place now,” he said. “If Winnipeg can fulfill all its commitments and the board approves the deal on the 21st, the franchise is going to be in Winnipeg for the start of next year.”

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Associated Press Writer George Henry in Duluth, Ga., and AP freelance writer Kevin Woodley in Vancouver contributed to this report.

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Paul Newberry can be reached at http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963