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Conflicted emotions for an adopted Winnipegger

The heavy-hitters are Tweeting that NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly’s in first class on a flight from Toronto to Winnipeg this morning, and that the NHL will make its announcement regarding the Atlanta Thrashers heading to Winnipeg at 11 AM CDT, presumably at The Forks, regardless of whether the paperwork between the Atlanta Spirit’s dysfunctional family and True North Sports and Entertainment is done.

Given my personal ties to Winnipeg (adopted family, having spent six months of my life there and nearly marrying a Winnipeg gal), you’d think that this adopted Winnipegger would be thrilled that, fifteen years after the Jets were ripped from the hearts of Manitoban hockey fans, an NHL team will return to the Peg.

Instead, I feel awful. The NHL and Gary Bettman have spent millions and millions of dollars of revenue-sharing dollars litigating the hell out of Phoenix to ensure that the Coyotes didn’t head back to Winnipeg despite the fact that Phoenix’s NHL future remains uncertain at best—and boy howdy, even as a Jets fan and die-hard Red Wings supporter, the last two years’ of playoff battles against the Coyotes have more than proven to me the tenacity of Coyotes fans…

But especially given the Thrashers’ media and population market size, I don’t understand how the NHL can simply throw up its hands, without an ounce of complaint, and tell Thrashers fans, who they are many and they are passionate, the same thing Gary Bettman told Winnipeggers in 1996: “No one wants to own your team, so we’re moving them.”

That’s truly horrible, if not despicable. The Thrashers were never given a chance to compete because their owners wouldn’t spend on a winner and even Don Waddell couldn’t get ‘em going on a consistent basis to help sell fans in a jam-packed sports marketplace on hockey for the second time. Thrashers fans still sprouted like Kudzu and spent millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours supporting a team that did what the Jets did in the 90’s—fail to produce—while watching the vast majority of the players whose names adorned the backs of their jerseys be traded away or plain old let go with such alarming regularity that the best investment might have been a “Thrash” jersey, witnessing their team be mismanaged by an eight-headed hydra of an ownership group, but they stuck by their Thrashers nonetheless…

And today, those passionate hockey fans should email or call the NHL’s front office and angrily ask why the hell the NHL chose to fight so very hard for Phoenix but chose not to lift a finger to ensure that the Thrashers remained Atlanta’s team.

I can’t imagine the pain that die-hard hockey fans who are old enough to have witnessed the Flames leave for Calgary must feel. Twice, the NHL has failed hockey fans and hockey in Atlanta, and twice, it’s left for smaller but greener Canadian pastures. The second time around, the league didn’t so much as blink before pulling up stakes.

This should be a happy day for hockey fans in Manitoba and Winnipeg, which will truly host a team that will be the NHL’s equivalent of the Green Bay Packers in terms of their market size, and I do believe that the NHL can and will work in Winnipeg over the long haul, but on a day where the adopted Manitoban in me should be doing nothing less than standing up and cheering, I can’t help but feel terrible because the joy felt in Winnipeg today will be predicated upon the breaking of Thrashers’ fans’ hearts.

It’s not personal. It’s as personal as the Coyotes felt about the Jets becoming “their” team. And we’ve certainly learned that in this day and age, when sports teams in some major and many minor leagues shuffled from town to town, that it’s nothing less than sacrilegious to suggest that fans don’t “deserve” their team if it’s leaving due to business failures.

In that sense, it is wonderful that Winnipeg will be welcomed back into the NHL family, but it is also patently unfair, and as such, today is truly a sad day. I hope that Winnipeg promises to take good care of the Thrashers and that Winnipeggers understand that Atlanta’s hockey fans are in the exact same position that they were 15 years ago.

I am simultaneously both thrilled to know that I can wear one of my Jets jerseys soon and feel proud to know that there will be an NHL team in the Peg again, but at the same time, I am profoundly and truly sorry, and there’s no way in hell that I’ll wear anything Jets-related today.

I can’t do it when one town’s second chance is another’s hockey funeral.

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Comments

Avatar

Oh, come on.

Atlanta’s not a winner not because they ‘weren’t given a chance’.  That’s facile.

The problem Atlanta had is the same problem every small market team has had: it’s incredibly hard to be consistently successful when you’re in a soft hockey market, other teams can outspend you by 10-20 million bucks a year, and most FA’s aren’t going to want to go there for market value.

Even BIG market teams struggle to stay competitive without incredibly competent GMsmanship.  Look at Toronto.  Look at NJ post cap.  Look at Calgary.  Look at St. Louis.  Look at Colorado lately.  All teams run poorly, all teams experiencing extremely limited results.

The thing that doomed the NHL in Atlanta is bad management.  Granted, when the NHL comes in behind the Braves, the Falcons, the Hawks,  two college football teams and NASCAR, it’s going to be hard sledding for fanbucks.  When you suck on top of that?

D.O.A.  And that’s exactly what the Thrashers have been for most of the past decade-plus.

There are all kinds of secondary-level hockey markets out there, and in terms of ‘real’ support there’s very little to separate them.  The problem with those markets is that unless that franchise experiences consistent success, or is the big fish in the small pond, their level of support is going to be pretty soft.  As soon as things go south the fans flee in droves.

That’s why the Avs attendance is down 4000 fans a night.  That’s why Tampa’s attendance was down 4500 fans a night.  That’s why the Stars’ attendance is down 3500 a night.

I don’t think an NHL team is ever going to get rich in Winnipeg.  I think they will be a much more strongly-supported team, though… and if you’re going to be a small market club at least be a small market club that its city actually cares about and not an effectively small market club in a huge actual market which only gets 1% of it’s metro population out to the games.

Posted by HockeyinHD on 05/31/11 at 10:40 AM ET

phillyd's avatar

The other thing with Atlanta is after the Falcons and GT/UGA football, there isn’t a whole lot left people care about. The Braves were in a pennant race last year and barely drew 20K to a game. The Hawks (and NBA in general) draw about the same as the Thrashers.  NASCAR now only has one race in Atlanta because they’ve drawn lousy there the last decade for their two races and are hoping only having one will be better, but I doubt it. To me, Atlanta isn’t the sports town it was in the early 90s, pre-Olympics, when the Braves were coming close to selling out and the Hawks were too.

Posted by phillyd from Southern New Jersey on 05/31/11 at 10:49 AM ET

joedaiceman's avatar

As an Thrashers season ticket holder my perspective was simple. The owners did a crappy job and that flowed down to everyone else in the organization. Atlanta could easily support a team and proved that in the Thrashers early years.

As a diehard RedWings fan, I remember the days when they were the laughingstock of the league and what turned it around was strong ownership. Atlanta is a bigger media market by far than Detroit so it could be successful with the right ownership.

Posted by joedaiceman on 05/31/11 at 11:19 AM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

I think maybe Atlanta is just so full of people who have relocated that there is not a natural, loyal fan base for any sport.  Like a lot of similar places, mostly in the sun belt, a winning team will bring in some band wagon fans, but they disappear if the team falters.  At least baseball and football have history in southern states - they are sports that have historically been played in the south.  There is simply no long term history/legacy of hockey in any southern city.  Tampa Bay probably has the best chance of any southern city to have a successful hockey franchise.  Lots of Michiganders have retired to the west coast of Florida. 

I think George is spot on with regard to Phoenix vs. Atlanta.  There’s no good reason - none - why Bettman should have bailed out the Yotes time and time again and just abandoned the Thrashers.

I am happy for the hockey fans in Winnipeg.  Just think it should have been the Yotes (Jets).

Posted by MsRedWinger from Flori-duh on 05/31/11 at 11:20 AM ET

Nathan's avatar

Atlanta is a bigger media market by far than Detroit so it could be successful with the right ownership.

Posted by joedaiceman on 05/31/11 at 10:19 AM ET

This is kind of true, but kind of not. Depends how you look at it. If you look at the Atlanta and Detroit CSAs, they are actually comparable in size.

Otherwise I agree completely with your post.

This won’t be a popular thing to say, but it is true. Save for a few large Canadian markets, there are no true “hockey” markets, in the sense than they can sustain a team both from a fan loyalty and business perspective, no matter how the team performs.

Some areas like Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota have a lot of passion for the sport of hockey in general, and have a lot of youth hockey and college programs that people care about. But even with that said, we’ve seen, especially in the case of the Dead Things and the North Stars, eras when those pro clubs just were not filling the arenas at all.

It is all about winning.

Posted by Nathan from the scoresheet! on 05/31/11 at 11:38 AM ET

bezukov's avatar

I just think its another example of the NHL being too big.  I’d like to see a league with no Florida, Atlanta/Winnipeg, Phoenix, Dallas, Nashville, Columbus, and maybe even no Islanders.  The talent pool would be less diluted and the underperforming ownership groups (i.e. dead weight) could be weeded out.  I know it sounds couter-intuitive, but the NHL could be perfectly viable if the commissioner accepted that the NHL is a niche market sport.  If he would learn to how treat the hockey fans he already has, instead of whoring out the sport for new/transient fans in non-hockey markets…. well what a wonderful world that would be.

Posted by bezukov from the kids are alright. on 05/31/11 at 12:26 PM ET

AndrewFromAnnArbor's avatar

And today, those passionate hockey fans should email or call the NHL’s front office and angrily ask why the hell the NHL chose to fight so very hard for Phoenix but chose not to lift a finger to ensure that the Thrashers remained Atlanta’s team.

Ah…now that IS the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

Posted by AndrewFromAnnArbor from Fortress Europe on 05/31/11 at 12:42 PM ET

Avatar

I can’t help but wonder what the Thrashers fate might have been had Ted Turner/Time Warner sold the team to David McDavid rather than he’s less than completely legal sale to his son & son-in-law (ASG).

I truly believe that with any kind of decent ownership, the Thrashers could have been successful in Atlanta.

Posted by Susan on 05/31/11 at 12:55 PM ET

awould's avatar

There’s no good reason - none - why Bettman should have bailed out the Yotes time and time again and just abandoned the Thrashers.

Glendale gave the NHL $25 million reasons two years in a row. And they have had 2 or 3 potential buyers with interest in keeping the team in Phoenix (given certain possibly-unrealistic conditions). And a team that was making the playoffs and selling out those last games (a sliver of hope). So, NHL gets paid by Glendale to off-set the losses and has a buyer in negotiations and a viable team.

What did Atlanta have? A team on the upswing (maybe). Beyond that, they had nothing. Nada. No buyer, no one willing to fork over dollars. Ergo, bye bye Georgia.

Posted by awould on 05/31/11 at 01:04 PM ET

Mandingo's avatar

The Braves were in a pennant race last year and barely drew 20K to a game.

Posted by phillyd from New Jersey on 05/31/11 at 09:49 AM ET

Bingo.

Atlanta is a notoriously bad sports market in general.

To think that a hockey team would thrive there was ludicrous.

Posted by Mandingo from The Garage on 05/31/11 at 01:38 PM ET

Avatar

But especially given the Thrashers’ media and population market size, I don’t understand how the NHL can simply throw up its hands, without an ounce of complaint,

Different circumstances. In Arizona, the league calls the shots and gets subsidized by the county. It’s not like the ownership group would lock the arena, cancel ticket sales, fire everybody and quit cutting payroll checks if it doesn’t like what Bettman’s doing, since he’s the owner. Atlanta’s ownership was in a position (and probably inclined) to do exactly that, if the league blocked a sale. Sure, they’d lose a legal battle after a year or so, but by then, the damage is done.

Posted by steviesteve on 05/31/11 at 02:45 PM ET

Slumpy's avatar

Waddell still going to have his job with Winnipeg? If was owner my first firing would be him.
bettman is such a human rodent. Saying they need to sell 13,000 season tickets before June 21st BOG vote to impressive them. Nice veiled threat weasel. Then he said they need to sellout their arena every night, lol. Can’t believe most of the leagues owners keep this guy as the face of the NHL. Where is the threats to Coyotes, Panthers, BJ’s and NYI fans to sellout their arenas every night or “else” and sell most about 86% their tickets through season ticket packages.
bettman doesn’t like Canada plain and simple and will move this team to KC or Las Vegas on a heartbeat if show any signs of losing money.

Posted by Slumpy from Detroit on 05/31/11 at 04:02 PM ET

Avatar

why the hell the NHL chose to fight so very hard for Phoenix but chose not to lift a finger to ensure that the Thrashers remained Atlanta’s team.

Why?  One word: Balsillie.

They had to fight the bankruptcy to keep Balsillie out.  To do that they had to come up with willing owners—or buy the team themselves.  Once they bought the team themselves they still had to come up with willing owners.  And they still have to come up with willing owners.

I don’t think this whole thing was ever about hockey in Phoenix.  It started out all about the NHL against Balsillie.  It ended up all about the NHL trying to save face.

That’s my 2¢.  Did somebody say (different post ) that even the NHL isn’t that stupid?

Posted by BobTheZee on 05/31/11 at 05:52 PM ET

Avatar

I don’t understand how the NHL can simply throw up its hands, without an ounce of complaint, and tell Thrashers fans, who they are many and they are passionate, the same thing Gary Bettman told Winnipeggers in 1996: “No one wants to own your team, so we’re moving them.”

Do your homework, that’s far from the case. The league has been in search of someone (anyone) to buy them for years without so much as a nibble, the corporate clients have long since fled, it’s a market that just isn’t much of a pro sports town, and the civic leadership is (at best) completely indifferent as to whether or not they have a team. Very different dynamics, very different economics. As for the owners, Burnside has a pretty decent article over on ESPN about how the Atlanta ownership has bungled this pretty much since the day the Thrashers were created and this move is the inevitable endgame. Regardless, claiming that Atlanta has been given short shrift by the NHL is silly.

Posted by RealityCheck on 05/31/11 at 06:01 PM ET

RWBill's avatar

If he would learn to how treat the hockey fans he already has, instead of whoring out the sport for new/transient fans in non-hockey markets…. well what a wonderful world that would be.

Posted by bezukov from Wings Fan in exile: Columbus, OH on 05/31/11 at 11:26 AM ET

This is where the ego of the Terd Bettman gets in the way of business and common sense.  He fancies himself the NHL version of a NBA Commissioner, except he does not understand hockey tradition or its fans.  What a Dick.

Posted by RWBill from Brush Street cruising with Super Creepy Rob Lowe. on 05/31/11 at 06:43 PM ET

RWBill's avatar

The Braves were in a pennant race last year and barely drew 20K to a game.

Posted by phillyd from New Jersey on 05/31/11 at 09:49 AM ET

Atlanta is a notoriously bad sports market in general.

To think that a hockey team would thrive there was ludicrous.

Posted by Mandingo from The Garage on 05/31/11 at 12:38 PM ET

i was stationed in Georgia on 3 separate occasions during my Army career.  The Braves were long time sad sacks, then one year hit on a fantastic staff of young pitchers and one year miraculously began competing for the pennant.  For at least 10 years they were the most consistent and excellent team in baseball, but the attendance and interest dropped precipitously (I don’t know what that means, but I mean it dropped by a lot).

As someone said, football is king in Georgia and most of the deep south, there is no real second.

Posted by RWBill from Brush Street cruising with Super Creepy Rob Lowe. on 05/31/11 at 06:48 PM ET

RWBill's avatar

Regardless, claiming that Atlanta has been given short shrift by the NHL is silly.

Posted by RealityCheck on 05/31/11 at 05:01 PM ET

Given everything else you said being true, I don’t think that last statement is correct if you compare it to the extraordinary efforts Bettman has gone through to keep the Coyotes in PHX.

Posted by RWBill from Brush Street cruising with Super Creepy Rob Lowe. on 05/31/11 at 06:53 PM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.