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Media mogul and car dealer seek deal for Winnipeg

By Jeffrey Jones

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Winnipeg's True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd has so far been the story of a major-league mogul and a local businessman making good money in hockey's minor leagues.

Now, the privately held company on the verge of reestablishing a National Hockey League team in the Canadian Prairie city will have to transfer that success as owner of the franchise with the smallest population base.

True North, a 10-year-old business owned by David Thomson, No. 17 on Forbes' list of billionaires, and Mark Chipman, the outfit's public face who runs a string of Winnipeg automobile dealerships, may be close to sealing the purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers.

Media have said an announcement could come as early as Tuesday, but a source familiar with the situation said that was premature.

For True North, the goal has been to offer top-level hockey in the city of 635,000 people, although attracting a new NHL franchise has not always been the priority.

"The stars had to align for this opportunity to come along, given the state the NHL was in a number of years ago, and a number of things just fell into place," said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

True North has said little publicly, other than its standard line that it would pursue the opportunity if it arose.

The cash-strapped Thrashers have struggled to maintain a large fan base in Georgia, home to well-established American football, baseball and basketball franchises.

Last week, Murray Edwards, co-owner of the Calgary Flames and member of the league executive, said the NHL seeks to work with ownership groups to keep a franchise in its current city.

Failing that, it will explore relocation options. "And I think today there is probably no market in North America that is more open and more supportive of an NHL franchise than Winnipeg," Edwards said.

A deal would bring the NHL back to the city 15 years after its beloved Jets were moved to Phoenix, a victim of surging player salaries, a weak domestic currency and lack of a modern arena.

Much has changed in favor of Winnipeg. The league imposed a salary cap after the 2004-05 lockout, Canada's dollar has surged above the value of the U.S. greenback and True North put up the sleek 15,000-seat MTS Center just a few blocks from the windy downtown corner of Portage and Main.

The company built the sports and concert venue in 2004 for C$133.5 million ($136.2 million), including C$40.5 million in public money.

It is home to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, a minor league hockey club owned by True North that draws fans as if it were the Winnipeg Jets of the 1970s, when Bobby Hull and Joe Daley ruled the ice.

True North does not disclose financial figures but is understood to be profitable.

Thomson, the Toronto-based media mogul who is chairman of Thomson Reuters, became involved through his family's real estate arm, Osmington Inc. It owned the land on Portage Avenue, the main East-West drag, where the MTS Center now stands.

He, Chipman and a handful of others established True North in 2001 to explore the possibility of building a new entertainment venue in the downtown, which had suffered years of decline. Since then the duo have bought out the other partners.

Thomson, who was unavailable for comment, has not been involved in the detailed, brass-tacks negotiations of bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg, although he may yet participate in the talks.

(Editing by Frank McGurty)