FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

After a 15-year absence, the NHL is returning to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

After weeks of denial by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and other league officials, True North Sports and Entertainment announced a conditional purchase of the financially strapped Atlanta Thrashers. Lawyers worked through the night on deal, with the final piece put in place Tuesday morning. Bettman told reporters at a news conference in Winnipeg that he took a conference call with the principles at 4:30 a.m. (EDT) Tuesday.

True North, headed by billionaire David Thomson and Mark Chipman, negotiated with the Atlanta Spirit Group to buy the Thrashers, who reportedly lost more than $300 million since 2005. Thomson is Canada’s richest man and chairman of the news and information company Thomson Reuters. Chipman’s family owns auto dealerships and real estate in Manitoba, and Chipman is governor of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose and former chairman of the executive committee of the AHL Board of Governors.

“I am excited beyond words,” Chipman told reporters at a press conference in the MTS Centre, which will be the home of the new team.

“NHL – welcome home,” Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger said. “It’s great to have you back here where you belong. We’ve missed you, and we’re going to make it work forever.”

A sale agreement needs approval of the NHL Board of Governors when they meet June 21 in New York, but Bettman said the last hurdle is largely contingent on the sale of 13,000 season tickets.

“We get to be back in a place we wish we hadn’t left in 1996,” Bettman said. “The best way for our fans here in Winnipeg to celebrate the opportunity, is to buy season tickets. … This isn’t going to work very well if this building isn’t sold out every night.”

True North turned its attention to the Thrashers after a deal involving $25 million in taxpayer money was reached to keep Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona several weeks ago. The Glendale (Ariz.) City Council committed that amount for the second consecutive year to help cover operating expenses for the NHL-owned franchise and to try to find a new owner.

A 75-percent vote of the board of governors is required to ratify a change of ownership, and a 50-percent vote is needed to approve a franchise relocation. This is the first relocation since the Whalers moved to North Carolina in 1997 and became the Carolina Hurricanes. The Whalers, Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Edmonton Oilers were four World Hockey Association teams to merge with the NHL in 1979.

The relocation of the Thrashers will return a NHL franchise to the Canadian prairie town for the first time since the Winnipeg Jets were moved to Phoenix in 1996 because of financial losses related to an outdated arena, increasing NHL salaries and a weak Canadian dollar. But the NHL now has a salary cap and a new U.S. television deal with Versus and NBC, the Canadian currency is worth more than the U.S. dollar and Winnipeg has a 15,015-seat downtown arena, the MTS Centre.

The deal was worth $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee that will be split by the rest of the NHL, and makes Atlanta the first city in the NHL’s modern era to lose two teams. In 1980, the Flames moved to Calgary after eight seasons in Georgia.

Bettman said he regretted seeing Atlanta lose its second NHL franchise. No other U.S. city has lost a professional sports franchise to Canada even once.

“To fans in Atlanta, we are not happy about leaving Atlanta,” Bettman said. “Please be assured it was not about whether Winnipeg is better than Atlanta. Sometimes we simply don’t have a choice.”

This relocation also will force the move of the Moose, who are in line to go to St. John’s, Newfoundland, the home of the top affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs until they moved to Toronto in 2005 and became the Marlies.

The name of the new Winnipeg franchise hasn’t been determined but it’s unlikely it will be called the Jets because of licensing and lineage associated with the Phoenix Coyotes. But there will be no division realignment next season, so the new Winnipeg team will remain in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast Division and teams in the Southwest Division will have to make a road trip three times. The rest of the Eastern Conference will make two trips each.

The Thrashers started in the 1999-2000 season when Atlanta was booming, but attendance dwindled, financial losses mounted and the team had ownership problems while missing the playoffs in 11 of 12 seasons and losing in the first round that one year that they did reach the postseason. Despite contending for a playoff spot until late last season, the team ranked 28th among 30 with an average attendance of 13,469 the Thrashers claimed last season. But the announced attendance and the actual body count in Phillips Arena rarely matched, and officials have said the team lost more than $130 million since 2005.

So after Atlanta struck out a second time, Winnipeg gets a mulligan. Video around the city showed large groups gathering downtown, cheering, wearing Jets jerseys and chanting, “Welcome back, welcome back” and “Go Jets, go.”

“It’s a fantastic day for the city, and I’m hoping, you know, for decades on, everybody will get to experience the NHL and the economic impact and the wonderful pride that comes with being a city that has the best of the best,” Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz told the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

AHL president and CEO David Andrews made the following statement on True North’s announcement:

“The Manitoba Moose have been a flagship franchise for the AHL over the last decade, always near the top of the league in attendance, regularly going deep into the Calder Cup playoffs, hosting the AHL All-Star Classic and developing countless National Hockey League players for the Vancouver Canucks, all while also maintaining a strong grassroots presence in the Winnipeg community.

“While our league will not be the same without the Manitoba Moose, our loss will be the NHL’s game. Mark Chipman has been an influential leader as an owner in the AHL, playing an important role in our expansion to absorb the former IHL and serving on the league’s executive committee for 10 years. He will be a terrific addition to the NHL Board of Governors.

“Manitoba deserves to have NHL hockey, and we have no doubt that the NHL will be successful in its return to Winnipeg. Our sincere thanks go to the Manitoba Moose fans who have supported the American Hockey League loyally and passionately for the past 10 years. The future of the Manitoba AHL franchise will be determined in the weeks ahead, and we look forward to Winnipeg’s NHL club developing its top prospects in the AHL.”

Quebec and Hartford also hope to rejoin Winnipeg in the world’s best hockey league. With the Edmonton Oilers still in business, that would be quite a coup for the former WHA brethren.

MALHOTRA VISITS DOCTOR, HOPES TO PLAY WEDNESDAY NIGHT

A final decision on playing in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night likely won’t be made until the morning, but Manny Malhotra appears on the verge of miraculously being back in the Vancouver Canucks lineup.

“Taking contact and taking game situations, receiving pucks in the middle and having the (defense) step up on me or going back for pucks … ” Malhotra said after practice Monday. “That’s as close as I’ve been to game situations for a long time so I felt pretty confident in those situations.”

The former Hartford Wolf Pack and New York Rangers center, who sustained a serious injury to his left eye when a puck deflected off the stick of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson on March 16, participated in his most physical workout and said he’s headed in the right direction after two surgeries and facing at least one more. Canucks general manager Mike Gillis said Malhotra wasn’t at practice Tuesday because he was at a doctor’s appointment. On Monday, Malhotra said the next two practices would determine if he was ready to play Wednesday night.

“I’d like to say, yes,” said Malhotra, who revealed Saturday that he had been cleared for contact by team doctors and given the green light to play. “The last couple of practices, being involved in scrimmages helps a lot, helps getting back into the swing of things, taking passes, getting bumped a little bit to get a little bit of your timing, but that’s not a game situation, I realize that. I’ve felt better every day, felt more confident on the ice every day, and it’s going to be two more practices and we’ll see.”

On Monday, the 31-year-old Malhotra skated on an unlikely fourth line of former Bridgeport Sound Tigers and New York Islanders wing Jeff Tambellini and Cody Hodgson and killed penalties with Max Lapierre in the second half of the workout when the Canucks worked on special teams.

While Malhotra declined to give specifics about the vision in his left eye, he said he didn’t think it would be an issue when he’s taking face-offs, where he was No. 2 in the NHL this season at 61.7 percent.

“Not (a problem) at all,” said Malhotra, the Rangers’ first-round pick (seventh overall) in 1998 who is wearing a full face shield. “I can see the entire spectrum of what I need to see. That’s all that matters.”

Malhotra said the eye injury won’t force him to change his game.

“I think that’s a thing going forward,” said Malhotra, who had 11 goals and 19 assists in 72 regular-season games. “It’s either I can play or I can’t. It’s not to say I can play and play a different game. If I can play it’s to do the things I could do prior to March 16. If I can’t do those things, then I’m not going to be in the lineup.”

Malhotra is expected to be in the lineup and should help strategically even if he only takes face-offs and helps the NHL’s No. 1 penalty-killing unit. But he could really help emotionally, especially when he wasn’t expected to play again this season and his career was threatened.

The Rogers Arena crowd would certainly go crazy if Malhotra returned between former Sound Tigers and Islanders wing Raffi Torres and Jannik Hansen as the key checking line against the Bruins’ top unit of David Krejci between Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. Having Malhotra would take a lot of the defensive load off high-scoring center Ryan Kesler.

But Malhotra’s bigger concern is getting used to wearing the full shield.

“It’s been a long time since I played with a fishbowl so that takes some getting used to out there,” he said. “It tends to fog up really quickly. Getting used to having that sweat on it, or having it fog up halfway through a shift, and that type of thing, is just something you have to deal with.”

Malhotra, who began skating with a full visor May 11, said breathing isn’t a problem. Timing is his biggest issue.

“I’ve got a pretty decent feel for the speed of things and executing plays,” he said. “It’s not game speed, but it’s obviously the best action I’ve seen in a long time. The progression keeps getting better every day. I felt a little bit more confident than I did last practice so, again, it’s getting better. As far as faceoff on the left side, I can see the entire spectrum of what I need to see and that’s all that matters.”

Malhotra also enjoyed his first regular dressing-room free-for-all with reporters since the accident. On Saturday, he sat at a podium. Before that, he was shielded from the media by club officials. He showed he still has game when queried about bantering with writers again.

“It’s a great time,” he said with a wink. “I missed our conversations, for sure. … It’s definitely fun to be part of this buzz again. It’s exciting.”

If Malhotra plays, he will be part of the more than 90 percent of the Canucks and Bruins players, coaches and managers who are AHL graduates. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault played for the 1984 Calder Cup champion Maine Mariners and then coached the 2005-06 Manitoba Moose to their first 100-point season in franchise history. Twenty-four of his 26 players are AHL alumni, including 11 who came through the Moose, led by Kesler, defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Dan Hamhuis and goalie Roberto Luongo.

Bruins coach Claude Julien guided the Hamilton Bulldogs from 2000 until his promotion to Montreal Canadiens coach midway through the 2002-03 season. He shared AHL Coach of the Year that season with Geoff Ward, who took over the Bulldogs upon Julien’s promotion and is now his assistant in Boston. Current Bruins assistant and former Hartford Whalers center Doug Jarvis succeeded Ward as coach in Hamilton and spent two seasons (2003-05) leading the Bulldogs. And assistant Doug Houda was a former Whalers defenseman and played on the 1996 Calder Cup champion Rochester Americans and in the 2000 Calder Cup finals won by the Wolf Pack. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli spent seven seasons with the Ottawa Senators, where his responsibilities included overseeing the AHL Senators.

The Bruins have 18 AHL graduates among their 21 players to play in the playoffs, including former AHL All-Stars Krecji, Zdeno Charo, Tim Thomas and Patrice Bergeron, as well at 2009 Eddie Shore Award winner (AHL’s top defenseman) Johnny Boychuk, who was on the P-Bruins with Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid and Tuukka Rask.

Vigneault has been non-committal about using Malhotra, but there have been indications he could start with fourth-line duty and take important defensive zone face-offs.

“I thought he looked all right, he’s still day-to-day, and we’ll see how he practices,” Vigneault said Monday. “If he is in the lineup, we’re going to use him accordingly. He’s been a good player for our team, and we’ll see how much he can chip in.”

Still, the hockey world would be excited for Malhotra. His return for the final run at hockey’s most prized trophy would be the story of the year – unless he scores the Cup-clinching goal.

DINEEN TO BE NAMED PANTHERS COACH ON WEDNESDAY

Former Whalers captain and standout right wing Kevin Dineen will be named coach of the Florida Panthers on Wednesday at a press conference at 3 p.m. in Sunrise, Fla.

Dineen, who has coached the AHL’s Portland Pirates the last five seasons, will succeed Peter DeBoer, fired on April 4, one day after the team finished its 10th consecutive season without a playoff appearance. The 47-year-old Dineen had a 219-131-23-26 record while leading the Pirates to the playoffs every season, including two Eastern Conference finals in which they came within a win of the Calder Cup finals. He was named AHL Coach of the Year in his first season (2005-06), and the Pirates eliminated the Connecticut Whale in the first round in six games in April after winning the Atlantic Division title.

Dineen, the Whalers’ third-round pick in 1982, had An 18-year NHL career, becoming only the fifth player in history to score more than 350 goals (355) and have more than 2,000 penalty minutes (2,229). He also had 405 assists in 1,188 regular-season games, with his best season being with the Whalers in 1988-89, when he had 45 goals and 44 assists in 79 games.

On Jan. 6, 2006, Dineen had his Whalers No. 11 retired to the XL Center rafters along with the No. 10 of Ron Francis, the only Hockey Hall of Famer in franchise history, and the No. 5 of Ulf Samuelsson, a former assistant with the Wolf Pack and Coyotes before being named coach of Modo of the Swedish Elite League last week.

Off the ice, Dineen is a spokesperson for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. He is the son of former Whalers coach and son Bill Dineen and brother of former NHL players Gord and Peter. His older brothers, Shawn and Jerry, were minor league players, and Jerry is now the video specialist for the Rangers.

Congratulations and best wishes to Kevin, the John Wayne of the Whalers and one of the classiest, hardest-working guys in hockey history. Here’s hoping the Panthers spend some money and get him some decent players to work with. Better yet, let’s hope the Panthers move to Hartford and Dineen can return and coach where he really made a name for himself in hockey.

DAWES, TEAMMATE HEADED TO RUSSIA

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Nigel Dawes and Bulldogs teammate Dustin Boyd signed one-year contracts with Barys Astana in Kazakhstan, which plays in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.

Dawes had a career-high 41 goals this season, which was one behind leader Colin McDonald, a Wethersfield native and son of former Whalers defenseman Gerry McDonald. Dawes, the Rangers’ fifth-round pick in 2003, added 14 goals and eight assists in the playoffs, where the Bulldogs lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals after falling in a 0-3 hole to the Binghamton Senators. Dawes had 39 goals and 45 assists in 212 NHL games with the Rangers, Coyotes, Thrashers and Canadiens.

Boyd, the Calgary Flames’ third-round pick in 2003, had 20 goals and nine assists in 47 games with the Bulldogs and one goal in 10 games with the Canadiens last season. He has 32 goals and 31 assists in 220 NHL games with the Flames, Canadiens and Nashville Predators. … Former Whalers defenseman Brad McCrimmon has been named coach of the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. … There’s a friendly wager between two Champions Tour events over the outcome of the Calder Cup finals, which are tied heading into Game 3 on Wednesday night in Binghamton, N.Y. If the Eastern Conference champion Binghamton Senators win, the Insperity Championship will donate $2,500 to the team’s charity of choice. If the Houston Aeros win, the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open on June 23-26 at En-Joie GC in Endicott, N.Y., will donate $2,500 to the charity of choice of the Western Conference champions. In addition, if the Senators win, the Insperity Championship will send 25 pounds of Rudy’s Barbeque Brisket to the Dick’s Sports Goods Open staff to enjoy. If the Aeros win, the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open will send 25 pounds of Lupo’s Spiedies to the Texas staff. And if the Senators clinch at home on Sunday, the ticket stub from the game will be good for admission to the final round of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open.

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