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Hockey fans bubbling with excitement over prospect of NHL returning to Winnipeg

Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Ron Hainsey (6) dives for the puck as Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec looks on in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames in Atlanta, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. The NHL and True North Sports and Entertainment are disputing a report that a deal to bring the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg is done.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP,John Bazemore

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Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Ron Hainsey (6) dives for the puck as Thrashers goalie Ondrej Pavelec looks on in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Calgary Flames in Atlanta, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. The NHL and True North Sports and Entertainment are disputing a report that a deal to bring the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg is done.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP,John Bazemore

WINNIPEG - Jubilant Winnipeg Jets fans were celebrating with renewed enthusiasm Thursday night as fresh buzz circulated that a local business group has accomplished what no one else has come close to doing in 15 years—bring the NHL back to Manitoba.

The NHL and True North Sports and Entertainment were disputing a report that a deal to bring the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg is done but that hasn't dampened the mood of hockey fans.

About 50 people—many wearing Winnipeg Jets jerseys—gathered at the downtown intersection of Portage and Main to celebrate late Thursday night. Many in the jubilant crowd waved flags bearing the old Jets logo and encouraged drivers to honk their horns, yelling "Go, Jets, Go."

Ron Ramirez, lacing up his hockey skates at a Winnipeg arena Thursday night, remembers going to see the Jets as a kid.

"You could see Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux for $6," said the 44-year-old who wrote part of his master's thesis on the impact of the Jets' departure on Winnipeg. "I'm jazzed about this. I'm elated. It brings me back to my childhood days, what it was like to be a Jets fan."

Although some are throwing cold water on the reported deal, Ramirez is hopeful.

"I think it's true," he said. "But I've been disappointed for the last 15 years."

Citing sources, The Globe and Mail reported Thursday evening that the announcement confirming the sale will be made Tuesday in Winnipeg.

"It's not true," True North spokesman Scott Brown said when asked about the report that a deal was done.

True North Sports and Entertainment owns and operates the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League and the MTS Centre arena, which would become the NHL team's new home.

The Globe report says the NHL board of governors has already approved the sale and transfer of the team, pending negotiation of a purchase agreement between Atlanta Spirit LLC, the Thrashers'owners, and True North.

As far as we know, there is nothing done," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to The Canadian Press. "And certainly, the board has not approved anything."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman echoed that on his weekly radio show Thursday night, saying no deal has been made to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg.

"I can tell you that with certainty," he said.

A spokesperson for the City of Winnipeg also said that city officials had not heard anything has been confirmed.

Winnipeg lost its beloved Jets in 1996 when the team moved to Phoenix because of financial problems. Since then, Winnipeg has built a new arena—the MTS centre—and has argued it can support an NHL franchise once again.

And it has potential owners with deep pockets in True North, which is led by businessman Mark Chipman and billionaire David Thomson, whose family investment vehicle Woodbridge has controlling interest of Thomson Reuters and the Globe and Mail.

When news broke that True North was negotiating with the Thrashers, their efforts were met with skepticism on one side and excited fans debating what the new prospective team should be called on the other.

Darren Ford has been keeping the hope alive since the Jets left Winnipeg in 1996. But the founder of jetsowner.com is holding his applause until he sees something official.

"This has been such a long eight-year wait, I'm just going to make sure that everything's real," he said.

Still, with his phone ringing off the hook and hits to his website going through the roof, Ford said there is no denying the city's excitement.

"The anticipation is palpable," he said. "Everybody is talking about it non-stop . . . This is right around the corner. I believe this is going to happen."

Fans debated truth and rumour online, from Facebook pages devoted to bringing back the Jets to Twitter.

"From a Habs fan, here's hoping it happens for the peg," Michael Hall posted on Facebook. "Sucks they have to take a team away from another city though."

"Do they honestly believe that they can keep denying this until Tuesday?" added Tyler Cumberford. "Half the country is celebrating the news that's less than an hour old. Just get it announced officially already."

A Thrashers fire sale may not be done, but there has been plenty of smoke in recent days.

One agent said Thrasher players have been quietly told to make new real estate plans.

And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this week that the Thrasher owners had begun negotiations on a sale that would relocate the team to Winnipeg.

Talk of a move has been such that Premier Greg Selinger has had to deal with questions about possible government support for an NHL team. Selinger has said taxpayers won't subsidize a franchise in Winnipeg but the province will consider everything else in its power to aid the return of the NHL, including help renovate the MTS centre which is modestly sized by NHL standards.

The Conference Board of Canada recently released a study evaluating whether Winnipeg and Quebec City could support an NHL team again. The study concluded both cities have larger populations than when they lost their respective teams in the mid-1990s and there is more disposable income in both areas.

The high Canadian dollar is also an advantage when it comes to paying out salaries in U.S. dollars, the study noted.

The Thrashers, who made their debut as an expansion franchise in 1999, have qualified for the post-season just once. That was in 2007, when Atlanta was swept in the first round by the New York Rangers.

The Thrashers looked promising for a while on the ice this season. Midway through the campaign, they were seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 20-15-6 record.

But the bottom fell out in late December and continued for two months. A 6-15-5 swoon from Dec. 21 to Feb. 23 all but sank any hope of stirring hockey interest in a team that plays before great swaths of empty seats.

Atlanta finished 12th in the East with a 34-36-12 record.

The team was 28th out of the 30-team league in attendance this season, averaging just 13,469.

Still supporters are planning a rally before the team's annual select-a-seat event for season-ticket holders at Philips Arena on Saturday.

—With files from Neil Davidson in Toronto

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