Atlanta Hawks & Thrashers co-owner Michael Gearon
"A small fan base but a very strong one in ATL. Sorry to hear the team is moving. My time there was great thanks to all in ATL," Atlanta Thrashers player Colby Armstrong said on Twitter.
ATLANTA - An emotional and at times defiant Michael Gearon spoke to reporters Tuesday, the same day he and his partners announced the sale of their NHL franchise to a group of investors in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Before he was able to respond to the first question from reporters, Gearon appeared to choke up, and excused himself as he fought back tears.
Moments later, Gearon returned and lamented the loss of the Thrashers. "There's nothing that replaces being able to go to a hockey game with your kids," he said. "It's just tough."
The emotions were echoed by many longtime Thrashers employees.
"I liken it to losing a terminally ill loved one," says Thrashers Radio Engineer Randy Abel. "It's not totally unexpected, but it's heartbreaking nonetheless."
True North Sports and Entertainment announced Tuesday at Winnipeg's MTS Centre that it has purchased the struggling Thrashers for Gearon's Atlanta Spirit Group and will shift the team to Canada next season.
The deal is reportedly worth $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee that would be split by the rest of the league.
Winnipeg has been without NHL hockey since the Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996. The Thrashers entered the league three years later as an expansion franchise, but ownership problems, a losing team and dwindling attendance doomed the club.
According to Gearon, the sale was an inevitable business decision that came down to a lack of money. "If I were Paul Allen or Bill Gates, we wouldn't be in this situation. But I'm not," he said.
Gearon, along with his partners in the Atlanta Spirit Group, have been loudly criticized by a relatively small, but vocal Thrashers fan base. Those fans have blamed the owners for poor performance on the ice, and the subsequently low ticket sales.
"Success is certainly a part of it, but I can tell you, the year we made the playoffs and won the division, we lost $20 million," Gearon said in defense.
"I'm a guy that grew up here and cared enough to put a lot of money in seven years ago, and I hate that we're sitting here today talking about this," he added.
Atlanta Thrashers fans have also accused The Atlanta Spirit Group of not taking seriously the offers of other potential buyers that intended to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta. "There's been a lot of press about people who claim to have interest, and the reality is those people probably couldn't afford season tickets," Gearon said of the offers.
"Go Google J.B. Smith, and you'll answer your question," Gearon said in defiance. "He's wanted for fraud. The place that he claims to work at, he doesn't work there."
"The reality is, we would have welcomed anybody - ANYBODY - who had the financial resources to do something," Gearon added.
In the end, the "local option" never seemed to work out, and after several hours of negotiations that went well into the pre-dawn hours, Tuesday, a deal was reached between the Atlanta Spirit and True North.
The deal still must be approved by the NHL Board of Governors. The board will meet on June 21.
The board's approval is expected to rely heavily on the number of season tickets sold for the Winnipeg NHL team. Tuesday, True North announced an initiative to sell 13,000 season tickets by the time the board meets.
The deal between True North and Atlanta Spirit comes after weeks of speculation and rumor over potential buyers to keep the team in Atlanta. But through it all, reports that the team was closest to a move to Winnipeg prevailed.
The Thrashers are the second NHL team Atlanta has lost to Canada. The Flames moved to Calgary in 1980.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)