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Atlanta loses yet another NHL team as Thrashers sold to Winnipeg

ATLANTA - First, the Flames. Now, the Thrashers.

Atlanta has become the first city in the NHL's modern era to lose two hockey teams as the Thrashers' owners agreed Tuesday to sell the struggling franchise to a group that will move it to Winnipeg next season.

"Our objective was always to find a solution to keep the team in Atlanta, and we spent a considerable amount of time, effort and resources trying to do so," said co-owner Bruce Levenson. "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."

The deal is reportedly worth US$170 million, including a $60-million relocation fee that would be split by the rest of the league.

The Thrashers entered the league in 1999 as an expansion franchise, but ownership problems, a losing team and dwindling attendance doomed the club.

The team ranked 28th out of 30 teams this year with an average attendance of less than 14,000.

For weeks, the two sides had been working through complex legal details on the sale and relocation of the team, while leaving open the possibility that a local buyer would emerge late in the process. No one ever came forward with a serious offer, according to the Thrashers' ownership group, Atlanta Spirit, and the city's mayor, Kasim Reed.

"It is going to hurt the city but we will withstand it just fine and we will get through it," Reed said.

Bettman said the league didn't want to leave Atlanta but had little choice.

"No real local purchasers emerged," he said. "When the Atlanta ownership made it clear they wanted out, we reached outside the Atlanta market."

Team president Don Waddell had said there remains some hope for a late development until a sale is made official and approved by the NHL board of governors.

But considering Atlanta Spirit, which also owns the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and the operating rights to Philips Arena, has been trying for years to sell the hockey team, that seems highly unlikely.

Also, any potential owner would have to agree to become a tenant at Philips Arena, a major impediment because it would cut into potential revenue from sources such as concessions, parking, luxury suites and other events.

"We don't like to move a franchise," Bettman said. "We're not happy about leaving Atlanta. This was never about whether Winnipeg is better than Atlanta. The decision to come to Winnipeg was only made after the Atlanta ownership made the decision they were going to sell even if it meant the team was going to leave Atlanta."