- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2011

ATLANTA (AP) - Thirty-one years after Atlanta lost its first NHL team to Canada, the city could be closer to again having its hockey team move north of the border.

Thrashers owners are still involved in talks with True North Sports and Entertainment, which would relocate the team to Winnipeg, Manitoba, despite a report Thursday that a deal was final.

The Globe and Mail in Toronto reported that the Thrashers’ agreement with True North was done and will be announced in Winnipeg on Tuesday. True North is led by Winnipeg businessman Mark Chipman and billionaire David Thomson, whose family owns The Globe and Mail.

True North spokesman Scott Brown told The Canadian Press the report is “not true.”

On his weekly radio show Thursday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said no deal has been made to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg.

“We get reports, speculation, that the team’s gone,” Bettman said. “And there’s no deal. I can tell you with certainty that there is no deal for this team to move. Am I predicting that there will never be or that there won’t be at some point in time? No, I’m not saying there is or there isn’t.”

Atlanta lost its first NHL team in 1980 when the Flames moved to Calgary, Alberta. If the Thrashers move, Atlanta would become the first city since the NHL’s 1967 expansion to lose two franchises.

While no deal is final for the Thrashers to be sold, the reprieve for Atlanta could be short-lived.

One of the Thrashers’ lead owners, Bruce Levenson, has said his top priority has been to find a buyer who would keep the team in Atlanta. The two-year search for a buyer to keep the team in Atlanta hasn’t been successful.

Winnipeg lost the Jets in 1996 when the team moved to Phoenix because of financial problems.

Bettman, who fielded calls from Thrashers fans on his show, said the league will consider moving a team only when there is no owner willing to keep the team in its current city.

“The key to this may be, in the final analysis, whether or not somebody wants to own the team in Atlanta,” Bettman said. “In the absence of either the current ownership group continuing to own and operate or somebody stepping forward who wants to buy the club, that becomes the situation that concerns us or any sports league.

“We’ll only leave a market _ in this case Atlanta, picking up on the caller’s statements _ if we have to. And hopefully the current ownership group will figure a way out of this that makes sense for everybody.”

The Thrashers are still planning a select-a-seat event for season-ticket holders at Philips Arena on Saturday. Fans are planning a rally before the event.

Levenson would not say on Thursday if Atlanta fans can still make an impact with a strong turnout at the rally on Saturday.

“I understand their frustration but as I have said, we are not allowed to comment on discussions with potential buyers and we must operate the business as usual until we find a solution,” Levenson told The Associated Press.

Bettman will follow the turnout by Thrashers fans at Saturday’s rally.

“It will be interesting to see how many people show up at the rally on Saturday,” Bettman said.

Levenson would not comment on the Toronto report or the status of talks with any potential buyer.

True North owns Winnipeg’s MTS Centre, which would be home to the Thrashers if the deal is finalized, and the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose.

Bettman said “time is getting short” if a deal can be reached in time for the Thrashers to move for the 2011-12 season.

The Thrashers’ average attendance this season was 13,469, 28th out of 30 teams. Attendance has declined as the Thrashers, who made their debut as an expansion franchise in 1999, have made only one playoff appearance and some fans became impatient with team management.

The ownership group led by Levenson and Michael Gearon Jr. also owns the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and operating rights to Philips Arena.

The Hawks also could be sold, but they are bound by their lease to Philips Arena to remain in Atlanta.

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