Greg Wyshynski

Why the Atlanta Thrashers aren't relocating to Canada

Greg Wyshynski
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"Our goal is to keep all our franchises where they are. That's always been our goal and that's what we try to do." - NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at the Board of Governors meetings this week, upon being questioned about the Atlanta Thrashers' stability.

That mission statement falls on deaf ears in the Canadian media. They can read attendance reports. They can see ownership problems that restrict everything from marketing to free-agent pursuits.

They know that for a League whose profitability owes a large stick-tap to the Canadian dollar, logic dictates that adding a team north of the border by relocating a money pit from the South would be beneficial to the NHL and its profitability.

And yet the Atlanta Thrashers aren't going anywhere, apparently.

The prosecution was in full voice at this week's Board of Governor's meetings in West Palm Beach, Fla.

From Scott Morrison of CBC Sports, in an article titled "Thrashers the next team on borrowed time":

The question is how much time does Atlanta have? "It will be a good test for our market in the next two to three weeks," said Waddell. "It usually picks up for us after the holidays. (Atlanta) is a different sports market. We don't need 17,000 a night to be successful, but we need more than what we have. We know we're never going to be a high spending, cap team, but I still think we can be successful."

Because the ownership group, Atlanta Spirit, own the Thrashers, the NBA Hawks and the Philips Arena, Waddell says it can have a positive impact on the business plan. "There are a lot of benefits to that structure," he said.

It means there can be revenues from another stream to help offset losses and the overall bottom line, but owners are also only willing to lose $15 million a season for so long, even with revenue sharing. So it could also mean eventually allowing a big-time money loser to leave town, even if it means losing a tenant, makes good business sense, too. Ideally, finding a new owner or investors looking to keep the team in Atlanta would be the priority, but how many rabbits, er, owners can Bettman continue to pull out of his hat.

From David Shoalts at the Globe & Mail, in a piece titled "Thrashers' woes in NHL's unofficial spotlight" (whatever the hell an "unofficial spotlight" is):

When it comes to the Thrashers, even those at the top of the NHL recognize the problems. The team has endured a long and bitter feud among its ownership group - which is still not settled - and it has never been a consistent draw in Atlanta.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly recently told a Winnipeg radio station that relocation is a possibility if things cannot be turned around. Daly clarified his remarks at the Florida meetings, saying he did not mean a move "is imminent."

But with groups in Winnipeg and Quebec stalking the Thrashers, talk of relocation is growing - although Don Waddell, president of the company that owns the club, insists the league will not allow a move.

"That's why I speak up about it because it does get frustrating," Waddell said of the relocation talk, his frustration written on his face. "We deal with it as it comes up and it's been coming up for three years now. It won't be the last time for sure. ... Those are things out of our control. Our focus is going to stay on trying to sell tickets in Atlanta."

For the defense, it's Scott Burnside of ESPN.com, writing a scathing take on Canadian desires to relocate struggling U.S.-based teams:

We understand why every whisper and burp out of the league offices might be big news in Winnipeg and, more lately, Quebec City. Is this it? Is this the time when the NHL comes back home to Winnipeg or Quebec City or finds a vacant parking lot somewhere in Southern Ontario?

But does anyone really think there is a snowball's chance in, well, Phoenix in mid-July that an NHL team is going to up and move anytime soon?

The answer is an emphatic "no." It is not going to happen. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tells us it's not going to happen, and history tells us he is right.

Burnside mentions that no NHL team has relocated in more than 14 years, despite franchises like the Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins and Phoenix Coyotes all having been close to doing do. (Gee, is there a common denominator in all three ownership dramas? Let's check our BlackBerry ...)

Fact is that the owners are happy that Bettman and the NHL have steadfastly and stubbornly hung tough in struggling markets. From Burnside, here's St. Louis Blues President John Davdison:

Davidson, a longtime NHL netminder and national broadcaster, said it's important from a stability standpoint that the league continues its practice of working as hard as possible to keep teams from relocating. "I give the commissioner a lot of credit for being patient with a lot of these situations. ... You can't be a transient group, you just can't, when you have issues, jump up, move somewhere else and hope it works," Davidson said.

"I admire the way they battle to stay in all these cities where they committed themselves to. There are a lot of people on the other end in those cities, not just ownership, a lot of people who commit to your franchise when it comes in there," he added.

It goes beyond the team and the city, though. It's about the League and its image.

Bettman's reign in the NHL has been one of expansion, not contraction; of new venturing forth to new frontiers, rather than retreating to comfort zones.

The success of these initiatives can, and should, be dissected and debated. But there's no question that moving a Bettman era expansion or relocated team (like Atlanta or Phoenix) north of the border carries with it a sense of defeat, of failure, of having staked a claim in a new market and then having seen that market, for whatever reason, reject the NHL.

And you expect Gary Bettman to symbolically admit to that?

There's a better chance Glendale gets a second NHL franchise ...

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