Winnipeg starts party early as NHL team nears

Fri May 20, 2011 1:50pm EDT
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By Rod Nickel

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 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.   Continued...

<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. REUTERS/Shaun Best</p>