A done deal: Winnipeg gets its hockey back

The National Hockey League is returning to Manitoba.

An agreement is in place between True North Sports and the owners of the Atlanta Thrashers to move the team to Winnipeg for next season. The city has been without the NHL for 15 years, when the Jets moved to Phoenix prior to the 1996-97 season.

For fans in Fargo-Moorhead, a team in Winnipeg gives them another option within a 3.5 or 4-hour drive.

The deal still needs approval from the NHL board of governors, which could come as early as June 21.

This is a big move, not just for Winnipeg but for the NHL. And I’m not sure how to interpret it. There was plenty of relocation in the 1990s, but this is the first time since 1981 that a team has moved from a southern market to a northern market. That was also an Atlanta team, as the Flames left for Calgary that year.

Is this just the start of what could be a migration north? I think it’s possible. But it’s pretty safe to say the NHL over-expanded 10 or 15 years ago, and the league would be healthier if there was contraction rather than relocation. Besides Quebec City, I haven’t heard of any other market that’s making much of an effort to get an NHL team. And there’s plenty of teams that are in financial trouble.

But one thing is for sure: The NHL was unable to broaden its fan base by cultivating a strong following in the southern markets. I think having teams in Phoenix and Atlanta and Dallas has actually helped the growth of the sport and spawned youth programs where there might not otherwise be. But the NHL teams themselves play second-fiddle, or more accurately, fifth-fiddle, to college football, pro football, NASCAR, etc.

I’ll leave you with this video from the Jets’ final regular-season game back in 1996. Pretty cool.

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