May 20, 2011 / 2:47 AM / 6 years ago

Winnipeg starts party early as NHL team nears

<p>Hockey fans cheer at the corner of Portage and Main in downtown Winnipeg after media reports of the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team moving to Winnipeg, May 19, 2011.Shaun Best</p>

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Fifteen years of pent-up passion for the return of big-league hockey spilled into the streets of downtown Winnipeg as the usually modest Canadian Prairie city celebrated its growing chances of getting a National Hockey League team.

While the return of an NHL franchise is not yet certain, hundreds of excited fans waved Winnipeg Jets flags and sported classic jerseys of the team that left for Phoenix, Arizona, in 1996.

The street party started Thursday night and extended into the wee hours of Friday morning, offering a foretaste of the greater jubilation that's likely to greet the actual purchase of a team.

Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper reported Thursday evening that a deal was done to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, whipping up the fan frenzy, even as the NHL denied a deal was in place.

"It was crazy," said Lauren Robb, who runs the fan website winnipegjetsonline.com and was among fans at Winnipeg's busiest corner, Portage and Main. "They were playing (street) hockey, they were drinking beer, they were singing O Canada."

The Globe reported that an official announcement on the sale of the Thrashers to Winnipeg will come Tuesday.

Billionaire David Thomson, whose holding company owns the Globe, is a partner in True North Sports and Entertainment, which is looking to buy an NHL team. He is also the chairman of Thomson Reuters.

True North owns the 15,000-seat MTS Center and the minor-league Manitoba Moose who replaced the Jets.

"We've had pro hockey here since the Jets left and to most people it's not the same," said Joe Daley, who was a star goalie for the Jets in the 1970s when the team played in the NHL's rival, the now-defunct World Hockey Association (WHA).

"For the psyche of the citizens, I think it would be wonderful."

Reports show the struggling Thrashers have lost more than $130 million since 2005. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has long rated Winnipeg as a top candidate for a relocated team.

The Jets played 24 seasons in the Manitoba capital, starting as part of the WHA in 1972 before joining the NHL in 1979.

But after 17 NHL seasons, the Jets ran into heavy financial turbulence given a weak Canadian dollar, an aging arena and soaring player salaries.

"When the Jets left here, it had nothing to do with the fan base," Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp Friday. "The fans were heartbroken and the fans came and contributed money. Kids were bringing their allowances (to try to save the team)."

The Jets' departure came after a sharp divide between the city's hockey fans, who wanted a new arena built, and others who opposed the use of tax money for the project.

There's little evidence of that debate now, although reports suggest the Manitoba government may approve more video lottery terminals to help True North support an NHL team.

The loudest debate now is what to name the still-unconfirmed team. Popular opinion on fan websites tilts strongly toward Jets, with others calling for a fresh identity.

"I love the name Winnipeg Jets. But, you know what, I can assure you yours truly and everybody else will be out there getting season tickets regardless of what the name is," Katz said.

Editing by Rob Wilson

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