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May 31, 2011 6:40 PM

DLA Piper, Skadden Help Bring NHL Back to Winnipeg

Posted by Brian Baxter

The National Hockey League is returning to Winnipeg, 14 years after the central Canadian city's last hockey team left for sunny Phoenix.

The league announced on Tuesday that the Atlanta Thrashers would move north after lawyers finished signing off on the $170 million deal. The Associated Press reports that the purchase price includes a $60 million relocation fee that will be paid by the Thrashers current ownership group with proceeds from the sale of the team and split by the rest of the NHL's 29 teams.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom banking partner Thomas Gowan advised the NHL on the Thrashers sale. The firm has been longtime outside counsel to the league, whose deputy commissioner, William Daly, is a Skadden alum. The firm also advised on the NHL's acquisition of the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy court two years ago.

It was the move of the Winnipeg Jets in 1996 to Phoenix, where they became the Coyotes, which spelled the end of NHL hockey in Manitoba's capital city. The NHL created the Thrashers in 1999 as an expansion team, but after 11 years in the southeast, ownership disputes, financial problems, and mounting attendance issues helped spell the end of the team's tenure in Atlanta after a new local ownership group couldn't be found.

The Thrashers' ownership group, Atlanta Spirit, LCC, is being advised on the sale of the franchise by DLA Piper corporate and finance partner Charles Baker in New York. Baker, a veteran of several major sports deals, is leading a team that includes corporate partner Jamie Knox, employee benefits partner Rita Patel, tax partner Bruce Wein, and associates Matthew McDermott and Tristram Cleminson.

Scott Wilkinson serves as chief legal officer for Atlanta Spirit, which also owns the National Basketball Association's Atlanta Hawks and the 19,000-seat Philips Arena. One member of the ownership group, J. Rutherford Seydel II, is a son-in-law of media mogul Ted Turner and name partner at Atlanta firm Davis, Pickren, Seydel & Sneed.

As previously reported by The Am Law Daily, ownership litigation issues beset the Atlanta Spirit group in recent years. King & Spalding found itself on the receiving end of a malpractice suit in January over the firm's alleged role in litigation that affected a sales agreement for the Thrashers. (King & Spalding is still busy handling sports deals--the firm advised on the $680 million sale of Major League Baseball's Houston Astros this month.)

Atlanta Spirit released a statement on Tuesday expressing disappointment at not being able to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta. The team is being sold to a group called True North Sports and Entertainment.

Winnipeg is currently home to the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose, who take the ice at the 15,000-seat MTS Centre, where the city's new NHL team will now play. (The AHL issued the following statement on the future of the Moose.)

True North, which owns the Moose and the MTS Centre, made no announcement about a new NHL team name on Tuesday. True North's ownership group is comprised of David Thomson, chairman of media conglomerate Thomson Reuters, and Mark Chipman, a founder of True North who once worked as an assistant district attorney in Florida before returning to Winnipeg in 1988.

True North is being advised by Robert Lee, a corporate and tax partner at Winnipeg firm Aikins, MacAulay & Thorvaldson. The firm is the largest in Winnipeg--no national Canadian firms have a presence in the city, according to Canadian Lawyer magazine.

The sale of the Thrashers requires the approval of the NHL's board of governors, who are set to meet on June 21 in New York. But Winnipeg still faces questions about whether it can support a viable NHL franchise, leading True North to also announce on Tuesday a campaign to sell 13,000 season tickets to show the league the city is serious about being the new home of an NHL franchise.

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