The Malik Report
by George Malik on 05/17/11 at 04:56 AM ET
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.
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.”
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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.