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If things keep rolling the way they are between Atlanta and Winnipeg, stick with Jimmy D

When an ownership group fails to keep an NHL team in a market, outsiders tend to assume that the team’s leaving a market because it’s simply “not a hockey town” and that there’s fault upon part of the fans as well as the owners. I didn’t believe that when the Jets left Winnipeg for Phoenix, the Nordiques left Quebec City for Denver or the Stars left Minnesota for Dallas, and I’ve found it downright insulting that now that the shoe’s on the other foot, Canadian media types have assumed that fans in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Long Island, among other places, simply aren’t that rabid about hockey. It’s an oversimplification to say the least and an all but lets ownership off the hook for trying to “sell” fans an inferior product in most cases.

So I’m not about to begrudge Thrashers fans’ hockey chops as their team’s crappy ownership group, which has never been particularly interested in presenting fans with a superb on-ice product, seems ready to bail and send the team to Winnipeg. Things got busy in a hurry on Tuesday, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution confirming that True North Sports and Entertainment is officially talking with the Atlanta Spirit about buying the team and relocating it to Winnipeg, and the Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg Sun, Globe and Mail and the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman all stated that things are getting hot and heavy, with various sources suggesting different things about possible realignments which might or might not include the Red Wings moving East.

It’s easy to get Wings fans in a tizzy and generate web hits and sports talk radio time—even WXYT’s Mike Valenti and Terry Foster were talking about the statements Jimmy Devellano made this past weekend about the Wings possibly moving East—by mentioning that the Atlanta Thrashers have been asked to submit two separate schedules to the league, one to accommodate a move West and a fail-safe schedule which assumes that the team will remain in the East (and as everybody’s been suggesting, the fact that there hasn’t been much leaking out from the negotiations, nor media scuttlebutt, proves that something serious-ass is going on in a league where the quieter things are, the more you can assume is going on behind the scenes).

So then we get into the whole do the Wings move to the East, or do the Blue Jackets, or do the Predators? topic. We now know, via the Columbus Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline and Blue Jackets president Mike Priest, as well as the Detroit News’s John Niyo, that the NHL’s “sources” are at least willing to go on the record as stating that Gary Bettman’s promises to Jimmy D and Mike Ilitch that the Wings would be given first preference in moving to the East should the NHL expand do not included realignment, nor, quite frankly, did Bettman have any intent to fulfill that promise in any instance.

The Winnipeg Sun’s Paul Friesen would have you believe otherwise...

We’re told the Detroit Red Wings want to move into the Eastern Conference, as does Columbus. The league is more likely to appease the Wings in that choice. Geographically, though, Nashville could easily take Atlanta’s place in the Southeast Division, opening a spot in the Central Division of the West.

Mind you, Winnipeg is best suited for the Northwest. Time may be too short for a realignment in time for next season.

While the Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta believes that the Blue Jackets would get the nod and slide into the Southeast Division for several reasons:

Well, for starters (actually, this is the main reason), the NHL has a lot invested in the Red Wings and its West Coast counterparts. Plain and simple, they draw. Fans in Dallas, Colorado, Anaheim and San Jose want to see the Wings in action. Detroit won’t shift to the East for a few years, at least.

As for the Predators… well, yeah, fans like seeing Chicago and Detroit come to town, but they’d definitely come out to see Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, too.

To be frank, with the Predators on the up-and-up (higher attendance, more local and corporate support, and a lot of buzz finally surrounding the club), the Blue Jackets need it more. They had a horrible year in the seats, they’re losing a boat load of cash, and while the fans are in the city (I can definitely attest to how wild and loud Blue Jackets fans can get), having only made the playoffs once in franchise history has hurt them.

Moving Columbus to the East allows for new intrigue. More Ovechkin (6 times a year!). More Crosby (4 times!). More Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins. The Blue Jackets will try to win over the fan base by sticking to a higher payroll this summer, but a move to the East creates new marketing initiatives that could help point the franchise in the right direction.

My gut feeling—and that’s all it is—is that the Predators make the most geographic sense, despite their status as a Central Time Zone team, because then-Predators owner Craig Leipold and GM David Poile stood by Bettman lock-step during the lockout, when the Predators, Sabres and Penguins were going to be “saved” by the lockout.

When that turned out to not be the case, after Jim Balsillie tried to take his Blackberry bucks and buy the Penguins, only to be rebuffed, Balsillie tried to buy the Predators, but when the NHL told Poile to back out of the deal as Balsillie started selling season tickets for the Hamilton Predators, Poile did what he was told and waited for the non-profit group that now owns the Predators to emerge.

In my brain, that curries favor with Bettman and the Board of Governors, and between Poile’s good deeds and the fact that Nashville playing against the Panthers, Lightning, Hurricanes and Capitals makes a little more sense than Columbus trying to establish more non-regional rivalries (and the Blue Jackets do desperately believe that if they were playing the Penguins and Sabres a little more often, they’d be doing better at the box office, on-ice product included), but that’s just my theory.

And, and perhaps moreover, we’re going to go back to John Niyo and Devellano for the reality regarding this whole schlamiel:

[W]ith all the talk lately of relocation to Winnipeg — first Phoenix, now Atlanta — and the possible realignment that might necessitate if that happens has raised the question again in earnest: Are the Wings still stuck, or could they finally be headed where they belong — logically, geographically, belatedly — in the Eastern Conference?

On Saturday, as the Red Wings gathered for one last time this spring to pose for the annual team photo and clean out their lockers, I posed that question to Devellano.

“Where do things stand? We’re gonna be right where we are next year,” Devellano said. “We’re gonna be right where we are this year for next year. Beyond that, I can’t comment. But next year, we’re right where we are.”

He can’t — or won’t — comment, but I did ask him if, beyond that, he remained hopeful.

“Fingers crossed, toes crossed,” Devellano replied with a laugh. “Saying prayers.”

So if the Atlanta Thrashers do end up going to Winnipeg, which remains an iffy proposition, there won’t be any realignment for the 2011-2012 season.

After that?

I’m sure there’s going to be some bread-buttering by the Wings, Blue Jackets and Predators, but knowing the way the NHL operates, and given the fact that, as Pagnotta suggests, the Wings sell out buildings in places where you can’t out-sell NFL games in October and November (see: Anaheim, LA, Phoenix, Dallas, and sometimes St. Louis), I just don’t see the NHL moving the Wings to the East, period.

Update: The Tennessean’s Josh Cooper spoke to David Poile about the concept of realignment:

While this would help from a convenience perspective — Eastern Conference travel is much easier and less costly than Western Conference travel — it would create a whole host of new issues.

Most of Nashville’s rivalries would change. For example, the Red Wings are essentially three guaranteed sellouts for Nashville during the season. Of course, if Detroit shifted to the Eastern Conference — as rumored — that would affect Nashville’s thoughts on changing conferences.

Poile said he was open to looking into an Eastern Conference defection, but didn’t sound too serious at the moment: “I think we should at least explore it. I think, now we’ve built up 13 years of strong division rivalry. I think our fans identify strongly with teams in our division, but tell me Detroit is going to the East, then that changes things.”

Huh.

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Comments

Avatar

I still don’t see how you can have Detroit and Chicago in different conferences. That would be like separating Calgary and Edmonton, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia or Boston and Montreal.

Nashville seems like it would have a natural future rival in Carolina if you moved them East, but, as Poile said, they already have some rivals where they are now, if not white-hot hatreds (if they keep building on their playoff success, those will come in good time), and are drawing better all the time (the Preds are a first class organization in the making; there should be a how-to book written about how they built a fanbase for hockey in a market that was alien to the sport, starting with those broadcasts where the pbp guys just explained the rules and what guys were trying to do on various shifts).

I agree with Pagnotta. Columbus desperately needs to move East, no matter what division they end up in. The hockey team hasn’t been good enough to create its own rivals, and the region’s natural, pre-existing sports rivals are all mostly with cities they hardly ever play right now.

Posted by steviesteve on 05/17/11 at 05:26 AM ET

Michiru Kaioh's avatar

Yeah, separating Detroit and Chicago would almost be like separating Detroit and Toronto, and Detroit and Montreal. Oh wait…

Posted by Michiru Kaioh on 05/17/11 at 05:53 AM ET

WICNMKYzerman's avatar

Good call Michiru.  The Wings have “rivals” everywhere.  Just because Chicago decided to play NHL hockey 3 years ago and their fans know every word of the “Detroit Sucks” chant doesn’t make them inseperable.  Want to see a rivalry, go watch Detroit play in Toronto…Chicago is a joke.  Go to a Wings / Maple Leafs game in the PRESEASON.  Anyway, I grew up hating the Leafs and the only hate I have for Chicago is that their “fans” showed up when a winning team did and will disapear into the darkness just as quickly as the salary cap continues to dismantle their team.

Posted by WICNMKYzerman from Detroit, MI on 05/17/11 at 09:36 AM ET

Michiru Kaioh's avatar

Yeah, the rivalry games in the east would be far more frequent…Leafs, Canadians, Penguins, ovie and the Caps four times a year, not to mention Boston and the Rangers as fellow original sixers…

The Wings would have rivalries all over the east…the only true rival they have in the West is the Hawks, with the Sharks becoming one because of the post-season, but really, the east would be so much better…

Posted by Michiru Kaioh on 05/17/11 at 09:44 AM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

So the Wings have to jet all over the country being “ambassadors for hockey,” and helping other teams sell tickets (not to mention the revenue sharing).  This while getting regularly dissed (out of jealousy I believe) by sports writers for other teams and getting constantly screwed by the NHL in every way imaginable.

cool grin

Posted by MsRedWinger from Flori-duh on 05/17/11 at 09:58 AM ET

Hank1974's avatar

Sorry George, but the difference between Winnipeg, Minnesota, Quebec City and even Hartford, compared to Atlanta and Phoenix is that for the Canadian teams, our dollar was horrible and we couldn’t afford to pay inflated US salaries.
For Min and Hartford, those clubs couldn’t get a new building they desperately wanted.

In Atlanta and Phoenix, fans simply don’t show up. That was NEVER a problem with Winnipeg, QC, Minnesota and Hartford.

Posted by Hank1974 on 05/17/11 at 10:45 AM ET

Hank1974's avatar

Regarding moving the Wings to the East, it’ll never, ever happen.
And when Columbus or Nashville gets moved there, the Wings better get a buttload of compenstation coming their way.
If I’m Illitch, I say “Fine, but the league is paying half of our travel expenses, and every playoff game in PST, starts no later than 8pm for our fans back home”.

Screw Bettman and his lies! We deserve to be in the East. Plain and simple.

Posted by Hank1974 on 05/17/11 at 10:47 AM ET

HockeyFanOhio's avatar

I’d love to see the Wings move to the East.  But it would really help the Jackets too.  I love going to Columbus and rooting for the Wings.  But I wouldn’t mind watching the Caps or Boston either.

Posted by HockeyFanOhio from Central Ohio on 05/17/11 at 11:39 AM ET

Avatar

so some of the commenters arguments are that the wings deserve to be treated like kings and every other team should be crapped on? not understanding why you think the wings deserve more original 6 games and then its ok to leave the blackhawks alone in the west. And travel sucks for ALL west teams, not just Detroit, the real argument there is the time difference for all away games, which I agree blows.

columbus would benefit the most from a move, in a league thats trying to spread interest, there is no way they move the wings and continue the east coast bias and alienate the west.

WICNMKYzerman say what you will about hawks fans, the true fans stuck around. I would love to see Detroit go through the ownership that the hawks had and see how the fans react. An owner that won’t televise home games, won’t pay to keep fan favorites and all stars, alienated the fans, and refused to change because he believed changing was admitting failure.

Good article, George. I think showed the big picture and put a lot of the view points out there. I really just don’t think the league can move the wings to the east and leave the west with no big draw teams. I think it has to be the Jackets, the Preds have established themselves in the central, so why move them. The Jackets are like the annoying little brother that just wants to tag along all the time.

Posted by pstumba on 05/17/11 at 12:16 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

This might seem ridiculous, but I think the solution should be to move Toronto back to the West and in the Central with Detroit and Chicago.

It’s a great rivalry and the East won’t suffer one bit without Toronto around.
They’re a much bigger draw in the West (on the road) and the East still has prime teams such as Pit, Philly, Bos, NY, etc in the East.

Posted by Hank1974 on 05/17/11 at 12:24 PM ET

Incognetis's avatar

Honestly, none of this would matter nearly as much (playoff travel aside, but that is for a different conversation) if the conference schedules weren’t so unbalanced.  In an 82-game regular season, is it really that difficult to play each team in the league home-and-away?  Do we really need to see division rivals SIX times per season?

There’s absolutely no reason that Original Six teams like Detroit and Chicago will go a year or two without playing in Montreal or Toronto, and that likewise those teams will not play at the Joe or United Center for a couple of years.  That is asinine.

On the same note, places like Nashville and Columbus don’t have to switch conferences to bring Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin to their arenas every year.  The NHL just needs to balance its schedule more.  Problem solved.

Posted by Incognetis from Delaware... Hi... I'm in... Delaware on 05/17/11 at 12:35 PM ET

YzermanZetterberg's avatar

I would love to see Detroit go through the ownership that the hawks had and see how the fans react. An owner that won’t televise home games, won’t pay to keep fan favorites and all stars, alienated the fans, and refused to change because he believed changing was admitting failure.

Been there, done that.

Ever heard of Bruce Norris Jr.? Gordie Howe’s “mushroom treatment?” The “Darkness Under Harkness?” Garry Unger’s haircut? The “Dead Things?” (and on and on ad infinitum)

Posted by YzermanZetterberg on 05/17/11 at 12:44 PM ET

Hank1974's avatar

Couldn’t agree more Incognetis.
But the owners hate the expense of added travel.
And when you hear players from Philly bitch about having to be on a 12-day road trip, they act like they’re martyr’s being forced into horrible conditions for their cause.

I read that one year the Devils spent a mere 6 nights away from their homes for the entire season. SIX!!!!!
The Wings will travel more in October than most teams in the Atlantic will for an entire year.

It’d be nice if the league told everyone to “F OFF” and force every team to travel to every city at least once.

I’d even be for a completely balanced schedule and then the top 16 teams play instead of the top 8 in two conferences.
Then and only then would things be 100% fair.

But then I guess we’d only see 3 or 4 teams from the East qualify for the playoffs.
And Bettman would have his hands full from all the Eastern owners who have him stuffed in their back pocket.

Posted by Hank1974 on 05/17/11 at 12:44 PM ET

Avatar

Yeah, separating Detroit and Chicago would almost be like separating Detroit and Toronto, and Detroit and Montreal. Oh wait…

Because Montreal totally hangs effigies of Detroit players these days and riots after games against them, win or lose. Hmm, no that’s Boston. Habs fans couldn’t give a flying care about your team. Sorry.

Posted by steviesteve on 05/17/11 at 01:08 PM ET

redxblack's avatar

Either this, or realign like baseball with an NL/AL setup. Share the pain or fix the schedule.

Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 05/17/11 at 01:11 PM ET

Avatar

@Hank1974: You might want to take a look back at attendance figures from the late-80s through the 90s.

Yes, Phoenix absolutely has trouble filling its building these days, but Winnipeg wasn’t much better off in the 5-7 years before the Jets left. Most years, they hovered below 13K average - several years they were even below that. Phoenix’s average attendance didn’t drop below 13K until 2009-2010.

The Whale and the North Stars had some rotten years at the gate, too. Hartford rarely crept up above 13K, and one season the North Stars *averaged* just 7,800 people (you are reading that right) in the building every game.

The only place where fans consistently packed the joint year after year was Quebec City, where the Nords typically averaged crowds of 15,000 in a building that sat only 15,187.

Posted by dzuunmod on 05/17/11 at 06:21 PM ET

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About The Malik Report

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.