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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canada reclaimed one of its lost NHL franchises on Tuesday when the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to True North Sports and Entertainment and relocated to Winnipeg, triggering wild celebrations in the Prairie city.
The announcement ended an agonizing wait for Winnipeg hockey fans as rumors of the sale dragged on for weeks before True North, led by partners Mark Chipman and billionaire David Thomson, were finally confirmed as the new owners by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at the MTS Center where the team will play.
Thomson is Canada's richest man and chairman of news and information company Thomson Reuters, while Chipman's family owns auto dealerships and real estate in the Western Canadian province of Manitoba.
The sale agreement will still need approval by the NHL's board of governors at its June 21 meeting. The price was not released, however numerous reports have said True North will pay $170 million, including a $60 million "relocation fee" to the NHL.
"It is nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years," Bettman told reporters. "I want to start out by thanking Mark Chipman and David Thomson for their patience, their professionalism, their perseverance and persistence.
"True North and Atlanta Spirit early this morning reached an agreement that would bring the NHL back to this city."
Before the NHL gives final approval, True North will look to sell 13,000 season tickets with multi-year commitments to signal that the franchise will be stable.
"Selling 13,000 season tickets will send a message to the NHL board of governors," Bettman said. "And, to be candid, this isn't going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night."
Winnipeg, which becomes the NHL's smallest market, was home to the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association before the team joined the NHL in 1979.
The Jets played for 17 years in the NHL before moving to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1996 because of financial losses related to an outdated arena, spiraling NHL salaries and a weak Canadian dollar.
The NHL now has a salary cap and a rich new U.S. television deal, the Canadian currency is worth more than the U.S. dollar, and the city has a seven-year-old, 15,000-seat downtown arena.
Canada also lost the Quebec Nordiques to Denver, where they became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. The Atlanta Thrashers franchise -- the second NHL team to depart the city -- was formed in 1999.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an avid hockey fan, called the NHL's return to Winnipeg -- which gives the league seven Canadian teams -- a "historic day" for hockey.
About 4,000 people watched the NHL's press conference on TV screens at The Forks tourist site in Winnipeg and erupted in cheers when Chipman said True North had bought the Thrashers.
The revelers then moved to the city's busiest corner at Portage and Main, where many played street hockey, waved Jets flags, chanted and popped open cans of beer.
"It's been 15 long years," said "Dancin' Gabe" Langlois, a Winnipeg fan who is known for his enthusiastic dancing at sports events. He said he was heartbroken when the Jets left the city.
"I cried the last few minutes of the last game. (It was) the blackest day in Winnipeg sports history."
Steve Kaltchev, 26, fashioned a spray-painted Stanley Cup out of a water cooler, ice cream pail and margarine tub before partying downtown.
"It's outrageous -- it feels like a dream," he said.
Chipman said Winnipeg has grown stronger in the 15 years since the Jets left, but the NHL's return still fills a void.
"Whether or not we're restoring something to the soul of this community, I don't know if I can answer that. This is a great day for our community."
Chipman said a team name has not been picked.
The Thrashers debuted during the 1999-2000 season at a time when Atlanta was booming, 19 years after the city lost the Flames to Calgary. But attendance dwindled, financial losses mounted and the team was hampered by ownership problems.
"We're all disappointed," said Laura Astorian of Atlanta, a school teacher and long-time Thrashers season ticket holder. "It's embarrassing to lose a major sports team."
Lisa Lewis, president of the Atlanta Thrashers Fan Club, said nothing is final until the NHL governors meet.
"It's not affecting me at this point yet because we're going to take the fight to the board of governors if we have to," she told Reuters.
Reports show the struggling Thrashers have lost more than $130 million since 2005.
"This is not the outcome we wanted and it's extremely disappointing that a buyer or significant investor did not come forward that would enable us to keep the team in Atlanta," said Thrashers co-owner Bruce Levenson in a statement.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and David Beasley in Atlanta; editing by Rob Wilson