(Updated: 2 p.m.)
Like warped kismet, the Thrashers were scheduled to face the Phoenix Coyotes Thursday night, the same week one of the Atlanta Spirit’s captains of disaster declared a relative state of emergency.
There should have been viewing parties in Winnipeg for this, because there’s a very good chance one of these teams is ending up in Manitoba. These rumors have been circulating for months, and not just from the usual Canadian chamber-of-commerce-type knuckleheads who have a vested interest. The rumors are like dominoes, and they fall like this:
♦ 1) The NHL has assured Winnipeg it is getting a team back.
♦ 2) The Coyotes, who’ve had financial issues since moving from Winnipeg in 1996, went into bankruptcy and now are operated by the league, would move back to Winnipeg if current arena refinancing issues can’t be resolved.
♦ 3) Should Phoenix resolve its problems and not relocate, the Thrashers will move to Winnipeg.
I wish I had a dollar for every time somebody used the term “done deal” with me over the last two months.
Michael Gearon was right about one thing: There is a “sense of urgency.” He just misplaces the blame. For him to suddenly put the onus on the fan base – “The reality is we need fans showing up and we need investors or a primary investor” – for hockey’s lifeline in Atlanta is disingenuous and shameful.
Fans showed up when the product was new and fresh. Fans showed up when the Thrashers won and made the playoffs. But since 1999, the team mostly has been mismanaged and run on the cheap.
Atlanta gets knocked for being “a bad sports town.” Fact is, Atlanta sports fans are smart and discerning consumers because they mandate a reason to spend their money. After being dumped on for most of 11 years since 1999, are Thrashers fans supposed to run through walls for a few good months? Scars take longer to heal.
Gearon, Bruce Levenson, and the rest don’t care. In the past, ownership suggested the $10 million annual Philips Arena naming rights deal was tied to having two tenants. It was a fallback soundbite every time a rumored move came up. Now, Thrashers president Don Waddell claims that’s not the case. If the Thrashers leave, he said, the Spirit merely receives a reduced pro-rated amount. (The Spirit denies an earlier version of the blog that said the naming rights deal was renegotiated six months ago.)
Over a year ago, when the Thrashers sat down to attempt to negotiate a new contract with Ilya Kovalchuk, ownership was apoplectic that Kovalchuk and his agent addressed potential new ownership and the team’s uncertain future in negotiations. Some wanted to cast the failed negotiations as the pro sports cliché of an athlete just asking for too much money. The fact was that Kovalchuk didn’t want to wake up in two years and find out he was moving to . . . Winnipeg.
When he couldn’t get assurances the team would stay in Atlanta, he played his only bargaining chip: He asked for the moon.
This situation is tearing up the insides of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. He doesn’t want to be the guy who allowed Atlanta to lose an NHL franchise for the second time. But he knows it’s a horrible situation created by horrible ownership, which he has called on the carpet before. There is no incentive for an outsider to purchase only the hockey team and keep it in Atlanta. There also is no market right now for the Spirit to sell both teams and the arena rights, even though both have been on the market for at least two years.
The Spirit admits in a current complaint against their former attorneys that they’ve been seeking to sell the Thrashers almost since closing the deal to buy them. How can somebody claim to be putting out the best possible product and at the same time be looking to dump it?
There’s a word for that: fraud.
I’m not sure there’s a way out of this. Even if the Coyotes move back to Winnipeg, the Thrashers will be in the same situation, waiting for a financial archangel the way you and I wait for a winning lottery ticket. It wasn’t right in 1980 when Tom Cousins had to sell the Flame to support his real estate ventures, and it’s not right now.
Gearon said this is an urgent matter. Neglect will do that. But this was years in the making. Don’t throw that into the laps of fans.
By Jeff Schultz