By Chris Vivlamore and Tim Tucker
It may be the 11th hour, but some Atlanta hockey fans are clinging to hope.
With the Atlanta Spirit ownership group deep into negotiations to sell the Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment, which would move the franchise to Winnipeg, current and prospective season-ticket holders plan to attend a select-a-seat event here Saturday.
“Our select-a-seat event will take place as planned at Philips Arena,” Thrashers president Don Waddell said Friday.
Team officials and owners declined to comment on the negotiations with the Winnipeg group.
One person familiar with the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the fluid and sensitive situation, said no agreement had been reached as of Friday afternoon but that talks and progress continued. The person said complex issues were being hammered out and that it’s difficult to predict when a deal might be completed.
Talks also continued with a prospective buyer willing to keep the team in Atlanta, but indications were that the sale to the Winnipeg group could happen as early as next week.
The Canadian Press reported that Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said Friday that although nothing is signed, sealed or delivered yet, there is an understanding the relocation “is going to happen” and it is just “a matter of time” before a deal is announced.
The Thrashers organization continues to operate. In fact, at least one new season ticket was sold Friday. The select-a-seat event will be run by ticket representatives with no team executives, coaches or players in attendance. The event will coincide with a gathering of Thrashers fans at the gulch area outside the arena.
For some, the seat event will be a chance to show support.
“We are going about it like business as usual in hopes there is still a season,” said Charlie Clarke. “It seems like the writing is on the wall, but you look at other situations like in Sacramento with the [NBA’s] Kings. The fan base thought it was over. and something happened to keep the team.
“There is no reason now not to go. I know it’s a bit of a tease, but I’m holding out that .001 percent chance.”
Others see it as an opportunity to walk down memory lane.
“I’ll be going to the event, but I’m treating it at it as if I’m going to a funeral,” said Brett Lang, who described himself as a season-ticket holder since Day One. “I will go sit in the seats that my friends, family, and I enjoyed for the 11 seasons, quietly reflect on the good times, and say farewell just like a funeral.”
For one Thrashers fan, the chances of losing the team were enough to make him change his plans to attend the season- ticket event. Darren Schuster had planned to attend as a show of support.
“When I think about how much I put into this team and how much I got back, it’s pathetic,” Schuster said. “You can’t blame the fans. When the team was spending money and winning, the fans showed up.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was informed of the fan gathering on his weekly call-in radio show, broadcast Thursday night on satellite radio and the Internet, by a Thrashers fan.
“It will be interesting to see how many people show up at the rally on Saturday,” Bettman said.
The caller also told Bettman that the Thrashers drew impressive crowds in their first five seasons and attributed recent attendance problems to ownership that has not put a competitive team on the ice.
“I understand that there may be dissatisfaction there, but demonstrating your dissatisfaction by not going to games is an interesting strategy,” Bettman said. “It’s your absolute right. But if it becomes a turnoff for anybody who might want to buy the franchise, the long-term consequences could be severe.”
Bettman vigorously denied that a deal is done to move the Thrashers. “I can tell you that with certainty,” he said. But he did not rule out the possibility and telegraphed what likely will be the NHL’s position if relocation occurs: that no qualified buyer was willing to own and operate the team in Atlanta.
“The decision as to whether or not to move a club doesn’t come out of looking at two markets and saying, ‘This market would be better than that market,’” Bettman said. “We try to keep our clubs where they are. And if it is ultimately determined that a club has to move, generally the reason . . . is because nobody wants to own a team there anymore, nobody wants to fund the losses.”
The Thrashers’ owners have been seeking a buyer or investors for two years, and have said since February that they face a “sense of urgency” to shed the team’s operating losses, one way or another. The owners have contended in court documents that the team has lost $130 million since 2005.
“The key to this may be, in the final analysis, whether or not somebody wants to own the team in Atlanta,” Bettman said. “In the absence of either the current ownership group continuing to own and operate or somebody stepping forward who wants to buy the club, that becomes the situation that concerns us or any sports league.
“We’ll only leave a market … if we have to,” Bettman said.
Making a deal to sell, let alone relocate, a team is a complex process involving the buyer, the seller and the NHL, each represented by groups of lawyers and financial advisors.
Atlanta Spirit and True North would have to complete a purchase-and-sale agreement. True North and the NHL would have to complete an “undertaking” agreement, spelling out the buyer’s commitments to the league. The parties would have to agree on how much of the money paid by True North would go to the NHL, rather than to the Spirit, as a relocation fee.
It is believed True North would pay as much as $170 million for the team, with $60 million going to the NHL and $110 million to the Spirit.
Ultimately, the NHL Board of Governors, which consists of one representative from each team, would have to vote to ratify a sale and relocation. A 75-percent vote is required to approve a new owner, and a majority vote is required to approve a relocation.
Here’s an indication of the complexities involved: When the Atlanta Spirit bought the Hawks and Thrashers in 2004, each member of the then-new ownership group had to sign his name 372 times on documents that filled six binders, each about six inches thick.
*** Thanks to all the fans who responded to my request and those I talked to but couldn’t fit into the story. I appreciate your help and your passion.