NHL burns in Atlanta as Thrashers jet to Winnipeg

One man’s Thrash is another man’s treasure.

It’s tempting to write it that way, and there is some truth to it. The owners of the Atlanta Thrashers never really wanted a hockey team and never succeeded in the Deep South. Now it appears they are unloading the NHL franchise to a super-rich group in Winnipeg – called True North – long desperate to bring the game back to its rightful place on the Canadian prairie.

The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that the deal was done. Even as denials poured in from all sides, no one believed them. The general feeling was that if the deal wasn’t done, it was only a matter of time before it would be. In Winnipeg, fans took to the streets in Jets jerseys Thursday night, remembering the team they once had and reveling in the news of the team to come.

“I think it’s great,” San Jose Sharks winger Ben Eager(notes) said earlier this week as the Thrashers-to-Winnipeg talk picked up steam. “They’ve been there long enough in Atlanta, and clearly people don’t like hockey there too much. Seven thousand people at games? It’s the National Hockey League.”

I don’t blame Eager for feeling that way. He grew up in Canada rooting for the Ottawa Senators. He won the Stanley Cup last year in Chicago, where the largest arena in the league was packed night after night and known as the “Madhouse on Madison,” that maddening song “Chelsea Dagger” rocking the joint after every Blackhawks goal. Then he was traded to the Thrashers, who struggled to draw fans even when they got off to a good start this season. Then he was traded to San Jose, where the Shark Tank is sold out and loud.

“In making it to the NHL, you think you’re going to play in front of a sold-out building or close to it every night,” Eager said. “It’s not there [in Atlanta], and they’ve tried long enough. Send the team to a place where the fans will embrace them and be there every night to support them.”

Winnipeg seems like such a place. The Jets didn’t move to Phoenix and become the Coyotes in 1996 because they weren’t beloved. They left because of business. Now the NHL has a salary cap, the Canadian dollar is strong and Winnipeg has a new arena. On nights when the MTS Centre is sold out, the Manitoba Moose feel more like they’re playing in the National Hockey League than the American Hockey League.

“It’s almost better there than some NHL cities,” said Vancouver Canucks winger Jeff Tambellini(notes), who played seven games for the Moose this season and has split much of his six-year professional career between the NHL and AHL. “There’s so much buzz. The last home game I played [in Winnipeg], it was a full house. People are passionate about the game of hockey there. Any time you can bring another team back to Canada in a market that has worked before – it was never an issue of the fan base – I think it would be exciting for a lot of the players and for the league itself.”

It would be. It will be. But it’s not that simple. It doesn’t make it any less of a shame that the NHL failed for the second time in Atlanta – after the Flames moved to Calgary in 1980 – and that doesn’t mean the league is guaranteed to succeed in its second try in Winnipeg.

“I have mixed emotions – kind of like watching your mother-in-law go off a cliff in your new Jaguar,” cracked Thrashers fan Wayne Witter. “I’ll be very upset that we don’t have hockey here, because there’s nothing like being at the game.”

There are passionate fans in Atlanta, too. There are fans like Witter, 74, who grew up in Boston rooting for the Bruins and settled in Atlanta as a Delta pilot. He had season tickets to the Flames. After they left, he had season tickets to the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League. Then he got season tickets to the Thrashers.

“I see a lot of young people at the Thrashers game,” Witter said, “which is good, because, you know, old people like us …”

He laughed.

“We’re not going to be around much longer,” he said. “They’ve got to build their base with young people.”

Exactly. When the NHL extended its footprint southward, it needed to rely on northern transplants at first. The next step was to hook the next generation so natives would grow up with the game.

But that’s hard to do when you stink. As Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos said during this year’s NHL all-star weekend: “The best marketing you can have for a hockey team regardless of where you’re at is that it wins once in a while.”

The Hurricanes went to the Stanley Cup final in 2002 and won the Stanley Cup in 2006. The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Cup in 2004 and are seven wins from another one now. The Dallas Stars won the Cup in 1999 and returned to the final in 2000. The Nashville Predators have made the playoffs consistently, even though they finally made the second round for the first time this year. Even the Florida Panthers have gone to the Cup final, in 1996.

At least when those teams have won, those non-traditional markets have made it work. The Thrashers haven’t won. They have had ownership issues – with the latest group more interested in the NBA’s Hawks and Philips Arena, trying to unload the Thrashers from the beginning, fighting in court for years – and inept management. They have made the playoffs only once in 11 seasons and didn’t win a game when they did. They have lost star players like Dany Heatley(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes) and Ilya Kovalchuk(notes). Attendance sank to an average of 13,469 this season, third-lowest in the league.

Witter kept wearing his Hossa sweater to games after Hossa left, partly in tribute, partly in mourning. Do you understand the mixed emotions now?

“When you’re charging $100, $200 for a seat, you better have a winning team,” Witter said. “Atlanta is a very, very tough professional neighborhood. They’ll support winners, but the minute you lose, they won’t go.”

How many people will go to the save-the-Thrashers rally before the team’s select-a-seat event Saturday? If few do, it will be held up as evidence that nobody cares or at least not enough people care. But know that the Thrashers didn’t give them a good reason to care, didn’t give the NHL a real chance to take root, and there is certainly no reason to select a seat now.

“I’m not renewing next year,” Witter said. “They’re already trying to [sell tickets]. When they start talking about moving, I’m not going to give you my money to hang on to. … It’s sad. That’s the main thing. It’s sad. Money means more than fan loyalty, team loyalty or anything else.”

That’s true on both sides of the border.

It was true when the Jets moved to Phoenix, where the NHL has fought to keep the Coyotes because it bought the team out of bankruptcy, it has been able to find an owner willing to keep the team there (if only because of a sweetheart deal) and the suburb of Glendale has been willing to pay millions to keep its publicly financed arena from going dark.

It will be true if the Thrashers leave Atlanta, where the NHL seems resigned to let the franchise go because it doesn’t want to run another team, no one can find an owner who wants to keep the team there, no one is willing to burn more cash for the cause and a move would generate something like a $60-million relocation fee.

And it will still be true if Winnipeg gets another team. There are reasons why the NHL has treated a return to Manitoba as a last resort, reluctant to leave a large American market for a small Canadian one, and they go beyond what commissioner Gary Bettman has called a “covenant with our fans.”

We can only hope the fans will fill the building and keep filling it after the honeymoon is over, even though they will be paying NHL prices, not AHL prices. We can only hope it won’t matter that the 15,000-seat MTS Centre is the smallest in the league, that at best the new team can average only about 1,500 more fans than the Thrashers did, that the Moose didn’t even lead the AHL in attendance this season (with an average of 8,404, second to the Hershey Bears’ 9,800).

We can only hope the new team can build a winner, keep its best players and attract free agents to Winnipeg, a place that some – like Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov(notes), a pending unrestricted free agent – have already disparaged.

We can only hope the new ownership group – which includes David Thomson, whose family is among the richest in the world – is willing to sacrifice some of its fortune if the team struggles or the Canadian dollar weakens. We can only hope the new collective bargaining agreement can solve the financial problems that still plague a good portion of the league, even though the last CBA, which came at the cost of the 2004-05 season, was supposed to fix them.

We can only hope in years to come there won’t be breaking news about another city losing an NHL franchise for the second time.

Once is enough.