Is NHL abandoning Thrashers, Atlanta after rescuing others? (UPDATED with Bill Daly Q-and-A)

Gary Bettman was high profile in Atlanta prior to 2008 All-Star Game but not much since.

Gary Bettman was high profile in Atlanta prior to the NHL All-Star Game but not much since.

(UPDATED at 4:50 p.m. after my Q-and-A with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Full transcript follows the column.)

This isn’t to absolve the Atlanta Spirit of responsibility for all this because, as we’ve come to learn, stability and agenda of ownership almost always dictate whether or not a sports franchise succeeds — and the Spirit has long had different agendas for the  Hawks and Thrashers.

This certainly isn’t to absolve Don Waddell, the Thrashers’ former long-time general manager and current team president, of responsibility because as the only executive who has been on campus from day one, he had the biggest hand in putting an inferior product on the ice for too many seasons.

But where is the NHL in all this?

Has Gary Bettman, the commissioner, stood at a pulpit on the corner of Marietta and Centennial Olympic Park Drive the way he did in the desert outpost of Glendale, Ariz., and screamed for hockey’s existence in Atlanta (especially given this is a top 10 TV market and Phoenix isn’t)?

Is the league coming to the rescue of a franchise in a desperate situation, the way it did in Buffalo and Nashville and Ottawa and Pittsburgh and even Tampa (Atlanta also is bigger than all of them)?

Atlanta seemingly is in the midst of being dumped on and abandoned by the NHL. Again. The first time was in 1980 when Atlanta Flames owner Tom Cousins needed money for his other business ventures, so he sold the team to a Canadian who moved them to Calgary. The NHL did nothing.

Now Winnipeg is circling the Thrashers. This comes after Bettman pleaded with Phoenix Coyotes fans and local business people to step up, and Glendale – destined to become the most bankrupt city in the United States – committed $25 million a year for up to 10 years to keep the team.

What do we get in Atlanta? Mostly silence — and what has been said is not comforting.

Asked Thursday if he could guarantee the Thrashers would play in Atlanta next season, deputy commissioner Bill Daly responded: “Nope. I can’t guarantee that.”

Daly denies reports that an announcement about the team being sold and moved is imminent: “There is nothing that has been done, nothing has been planned and nothing has been scheduled. Certainly, no transaction has been agreed to, not that I’m aware of.”

But the mere fact that he left the door open says all you need to know.

Daly says the league is doing all it can to keep the NHL in Atlanta. Sorry. I need evidence stronger than noncommittal soundbites. There’s a big difference between the NHL saying it wants a franchise in Atlanta and doing something about it. The league has the hammer to prevent franchise moves but hasn’t swung it, at least not publicly.

The Thrashers intersect with relocation rumors more than they do playoff races. But when this stuff circulated last year, Bettman put the kibosh on it. He told me that the league was “committed” to Atlanta, and considered the market “very important.” He said he believed the Thrashers could overcome their off-ice issues and “ultimately the franchise can be successful.”

He said he expected that one day “the franchise will be in a better place.” Then he laughed, realizing that was a poor choice of words given rumors of a move. “What I mean is, the franchise will be in a better situation,” he added.

Bettman said everything an Atlanta sports fan wanted to hear. He even took the extremely unusual step for a sports commissioner of criticizing an ownership group. (Excerpt: “It’s difficult to operate a franchise when owners aren’t getting along.”) He addressed how the league has come to the aid of struggling franchises in the past, and last week he circled back to those warm-and-fuzzy themes when asked about the potential relocation of  the Coyotes, which the league had been operating.

When asked by Yahoo why the NHL is fighting for Phoenix, Bettman responded, “Because we fight hard for every city. …  Because we have a covenant with our fans, and our fans need to know that we will stand by them as long as possible and that we don’t just run out.”

Great speech. Not sure how much it carries in terms of substance. I’m getting a visual of water running through a colander.

I’ve stated this before: If the Thrashers are moved, it won’t be because Atlanta failed as an NHL market, it will be because ownership and management failed. Fans can’t be expected to run back and support a product after feeling burned and relatively abused for several years. When fans stay away from a team that misses the playoffs in 10 out of 11 seasons, that doesn’t make them difficult, it makes them smart.

The NHL appears on the verge of making a huge mistake. If other teams feel bad about the Thrashers possibly moving to Winnipeg, they’re not saying.

Maybe they all like the fact the league would get a $60 million relocation fee out of the deal. For $60 million, you can buy a new conscience.

Here’s my Q-and-A with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly on Thursday:

Q: Where do we stand with the Thrashers?

A: “That’s more a question for [part-owner] Bruce [Levenson} than it is for me. He’s the one working on trying to find new ownership for the franchise. We’ve been working with him closely for a number of years in efforts to sell the franchise. Those efforts are ongoing. But there is nothing that has made sense to this point.”

Q: Can you guarantee the team will be in Atlanta next season?

A: “Nope. I can’t guarantee that.”

Q: So what are the chances of the Thrashers being relocated?

A: “I’m not into handicapping. I’m usually wrong.”

Q: Can you address rumors that a franchise sale and a move to Winnipeg is pretty much done and that an announcement is imminent?

A: “There is nothing that has been done, nothing has been planned and nothing has been scheduled. Certainly, no transaction has been agreed to, not that I’m aware of.”

Q: Have the Thrashers had negotiations with True North?

A: “I wouldn’t comment on that. That’s something you would have to ask the Thrashers about.”

Q: That’s not exactly a denial.

A: “But I would say the same thing even if I knew for a fact that they had not spoken to somebody. It’s not my role to publicly talk to the media about who Bruce Levenson might or might not be talking to.” [Note: Levenson told the AJC on Wednesday: “We are continuing to seek solutions for the Thrashers. I will not comment on any speculation.”]

Q: You and commissioner Gary Bettman both made frequent trips to Phoenix to speak publicly about the Coyotes staying there, but there has been no similar efforts in Atlanta. Why not?

A: “The situations are very different from a host of perspectives, not the least of which are the bankruptcy issues we had [in Phoenix], the fight in bankruptcy court and the league having to purchase the club. There were a unique set of circumstances that required the league’s presence in Glendale. The bottom line is, we owned that club.”

Q: I understand that. But does that preclude you or Gary from coming to Atlanta to show support for the franchise and help the process?

A: “No, of course not. If there was some reasonable sense that a public appeal would move the process along, then something would be done. But we’re not at that point.”

Q: Can you understand why Atlanta hockey fans might feel like the NHL is abandoning them, especially given the league’s silence?

A: “Again, what that opinion lacks is any real information as to what we have been doing over a number of years. There have been efforts to sell the club. We feel it is best that franchises not be relocated and we’ve made a commitment to keep franchises in the marketplace. Everything we’ve done with the Thrashers is consistent with that.”

Q: But not to the point of guaranteeing that they will remain in Atlanta?

A: “Correct.”

Q: You don’t find that response in conflict with Gary saying that the NHL is committed to cities and has a covenant with fans?

A: “No, because as I just tried to explain, nobody really knows exactly what we’ve been doing. But over a course of years, what we’ve done for the Thrashers franchise has been very consistent with what we’ve done for other franchises.”

By Jeff Schultz

Follow me on Twitter @JeffSchultzAJC; friend me at Facebook.com/JeffSchultzAJC

407 comments Add your comment

Paul H

May 12th, 2011
1:30 pm

Joe Friday

May 12th, 2011
1:38 pm

Nice picture of the two masterminds in this. Waddell is the one who killed hockey in Atlanta, aided by the naive fans in the early years who enabled him for years supporting the “right way he was building the team”.

And Bettman is the one that is culpable here as well. How can he not stand with this team and city and it’s fans. Of course the Spirit Squad is incompetent, they’ve made no secret of not wanting to own the hockey team for quite some time, but how do you just yank the club from the city and it’s fans without fighting for us.

I’ve long contended that the NHL is run like a Mickey Mouse 2nd/3rd class league, and we’re witnessing more proof of it. I’ve been a hockey fan my whole life, but good riddance. We’ll get an AHL club and you’ve got players there playing for less than lifeguards in California make and they play balls out, all at a fraction of the ticket price.

Danny O

May 12th, 2011
1:38 pm

Plenty of blame to go around here, but thank you Jeff for pointing out the fact that ownership has been with Waddell, who has consistently mad bad decisions that result in a poor product on the ice.

Hope they don’t leave.

Barry

May 12th, 2011
1:39 pm

Get ‘em, Schultz!

Coach Cool

May 12th, 2011
1:40 pm

Only one question remains:

Mayflower or Bekins?

Sad, sad day coming to the ATL.

shootoutloss

May 12th, 2011
1:41 pm

Dammit, Bettman. Dammit dammit dammit.
Dammit?
Mhmm..

clark kent

May 12th, 2011
1:41 pm

ASG has rocketed to Jimmy Carter levels of incompetence.

Dan was my favorite Thrasher

May 12th, 2011
1:41 pm

Yawwwwwwn.

For there to be no news on the Thrashers front, the AJC certainly is doing a lot of “reporting.”

Vivlamore spent two days saying nothing and now Shutlz spends a whole column complaining about no news.

Let me know when there is some real news on this issue.

PMC

May 12th, 2011
1:41 pm

It will just que more comments about Atlanta being a “bad sports town” by rust belters who are sad about the fact that we have all of their jobs now.

Sherry Taylor

May 12th, 2011
1:42 pm

Abandonment is an ugly word, but that’s what it looks like to the fan base. I hope someone shows Mr. Bettman the column and the thoughts of fans, not that he seems to care. But, I don’t think they have given the team and city a fair chance. They abandoned us to the care of owners who have clearly from the beginning not cared about either the team or their fans. The fan base is there, was there in the beginning, but what child keeps returning to the caretaker that doesn’t, well, take care of them. The owners have ignored everyone giving over the team to a lackluster GM who have littered the NHL with good,some great, players who could’ve produced for us, but instead they were traded away for ‘players of the future’. Well, Mr. Waddell, the future is here and it ain’t pretty, thank you very much.
Gary Bettman and the NHL have not given us a fair shake and if they continue to ignore the desire of fans for new owners or at least a strong hand at the back of current ownership, and if they ship us off to another home then they, the NHL, will not be able to wash their hands of the soul of what could have been a great hockey soul in Atlanta.

Supes

May 12th, 2011
1:42 pm

Great job Jeff,

Well said. Bettman remains silent…not a good sign at all.

If we lose the team to Canada once again…it’s a good bet we’ll never have NHL hockey again in Atlanta.

Coach Cool

May 12th, 2011
1:45 pm

Feel free to sing along if you’d like:

“Oh where, oh where has my David McDavid gone, or where or where can he be????”

Matt

May 12th, 2011
1:45 pm

Here, here!! Finally I’m not the only one trying to point out teh apparent hypocrisy of the NHL!

That being said, Gary Bettman is the only person in the NHL possibly more inept than Don Waddell!

Tony

May 12th, 2011
1:45 pm

No one goes to Thrashers games, why would anyone care if they are in Atlanta or not? However I don’t like the way Winnipeg Thrashers sounds so hopefully they change the name, if they went back to the Jets that’d be cool.

Al

May 12th, 2011
1:45 pm

Great one, Jeff. Well said.

I’ve been wanting Waddell to go away for YEARS. And what the heck does someone who was originally from the NBA know about hockey??? Bettman needs to go, too.

Steve Yzerman for commish! Look what he has done with the Bolts! (Obvious wishful thinking is obvious.)

William Satterwhite

May 12th, 2011
1:46 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment here but I’m not sure Bettman actually has any control here- it’s really started to appear more and more that the Thrashers are going to be everybody’s (Phoenix/Glendale, NHL BoG, ASG) sacrificial lamb. It doesn’t make any sense at all to fight tooth and nail for Phoenix/Glendale only to give up on Atlanta unless the only way Phoenix/Glendale can survive is through the relocation fees from an Atlanta move. Outside of Thrashers fans, literally everybody else wins if the Thrashers move to Winnipeg- I don’t think there’s anything Bettman can do to stop it.

B. Thenet

May 12th, 2011
1:47 pm

Where is Gary?

Jeff Schultz

May 12th, 2011
1:49 pm

Thanks Danny O. I hope they stay too.

blazerdawg

May 12th, 2011
1:50 pm

I remember the sad day that the Flames were sold and moved. Plett, Lysiack, Clement, and Bouchard were as well known in Atlanta at that time as Drew, Roundfield and Rollins.

I expect that the NHL will realize that it is in their best interest to keep the team in Atlanta. The Flames drew very well in all but their final year in Atlanta, The Knights set IHL records for attendance, and the Thrashers set the all-time attendance mark for an expansion team. Even with the turmoil and disapointment of the past few years the Thrashers attendance this year was superior Phoenix, Columbus, and New York and have comparable attendance to another half dozens or so franchises.

The NHL should help the ASG get through a local sale, or else one of the other southern teams will look to relocate to the best market and arena not in the NHL when they are down in ten years or so.

Jeff Schultz

May 12th, 2011
1:51 pm

Thanks Barry.

Jeff Schultz

May 12th, 2011
1:52 pm

Clark Kent — Come on, man. You can’t bang too much on a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Zing

May 12th, 2011
1:53 pm

There are plenty of fat wallets around this town. It speaks to how badly the Atlanta Spirit has damaged the product that no one wants to step up and buy the Thrashers. Interestly, I think that if a good ownership group (preferably one or a couple of people) stepped up, I think that they could fire up the fanbase. Everybody is just SO OVER the Atlanta Spirit and their shenanigans.

Jeff Schultz

May 12th, 2011
1:54 pm

Sherry Taylor — “I hope someone shows Mr. Bettman the column and the thoughts of fans, not that he seems to care” Trust me, they read everything. Whether they do something about it is another matter.

jon

May 12th, 2011
1:55 pm

In case you haven’t noticed, the NHL has been the Church of Gretzky for 30 years. Gretzky hasn’t played for a long time, but they won’t let his failure go even further in Phoenix. They will change rules to make the sport more like a troop of dancing Waynes and take grit and goalies out of the game; they will prop up a failed franchise he associated his name with in Phoenix, but they won’t be there for you. It shouldn’t be a shock.

jp

May 12th, 2011
1:57 pm

Betteman is a piece of trash. He needs to be fired and should have during the last lockout. He is easily the worst commish of the 4 major sports.

GStateBen

May 12th, 2011
2:00 pm

Great job Jeff! Remember when the Atlanta Sprit was scuffling and David Stern came in and privately told them to fix it or else? I do. Gary Bettman absolutely had the opportunity to do the same and he’s not doing it. Unacceptable in my book.

Phil

May 12th, 2011
2:01 pm

Truly sorry that Atlanta may lose their team. Again. The NHL is a tough sport to expand into the U.S. especially the Southern States. Unlike Canadian/Northern States the South has a very tough time expanding their fan base without a winning product on the ice. The mentality is that “no one wants to cheer for a loser”, in Edmonton (last place team 2 yrs running) their building is sold out every night, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal are the same way. The fans there (in smaller cities) flock to the arena to watch hockey.
I don’t so much feel sorry for Glendale and the Coyotes (they built their rink far far away and expected folks to migrate with the team). Atlanta on the other hand has a beautiful building. Philips arena is one of the nicest rinks in the league.
But through a combination of ownership issues and a non-winning team on the ice they have struggled mightily. This was almost the same thing that happened in Winnipeg in the mid-90s. We didn’t have the nice building that the Atlanta has, but what we did have was a major recession and a sub-par team on the ice. In an economic crisis the last thing people want to do is spend money on a hockey game to watch a team that is struggling. We also had an owner who didn’t want to lose anymore money and was trying to sell the team. It sold, but we stuck with it. We got a minor league team, supported them and help rebuild the economy. Also, we don’t feel that Bettman was much help in saving our Jets at the time either.
Please don’t blame the city or people of Winnipeg IF the Thrashers move. They just want their NHL back. They’ll take good care of your boys IF the move happens. I will continue to say IF because that was all we can do is wait and see what the NHL/Bettman will do next.

tonyb

May 12th, 2011
2:02 pm

Excellent article Jeff. Its good to see your views reflect what so many of the Thrashers fans feel at the present moment.

When Bettman made those statements we, as fans, listened. We knew that there were issues here in Atlanta with ownership, and we all heard the whispers of relocation which have hung over this franchise like a dark cloud since virtually day one. But those words, coming from the most important man in all of professional hockey, gave us the encouragement and incentive to continue on in our support of the Thrashers. We purchased tickets, drove to the arena, spent our time and hard earned money on the product. But most importantly, we also invested our hearts and loyalty to the team.

It would dishearten me if the commissioner abandons us in this, our darkest hour in Thrasher history. Yes, we all saw this commissioner go to extraordinary lengths in Phoenix to protect that fanbase. We saw him procure buyers in Tampa and other like cities. Now we are on the clock. It is our time for Mr. Bettman to come to our aid, and help both ownership and fans resolve this crisis. But where is he?. We have heard only faint comments, and now silence.

Mr. Bettman, I hope you words had substance. Your customers in Atlanta need to hear from you. We need your help.

da'boomer

May 12th, 2011
2:02 pm

what a ship of fools. dear ted turner – thanks for selling the team to these idiots. bettman – liar. waddell – idiot. asg – liars & idiots…let’s go back a little – tom cousion – piece of sh-t greedy b—–d..trying to sell himself as mr atlanta with his east lake crap. i hope there is a special room in hell for all of these clowns with piped in accordian music

Jeff Schultz

May 12th, 2011
2:05 pm

Thank Supes.

Jeff Schultz

May 12th, 2011
2:07 pm

GStateBen — Bettman did kind of do that in February 2010 when he spoke to me for that column, but certainly there has been nothing publicly since.

On the money Jeff ! News Cycle Seems Odd

May 12th, 2011
2:08 pm

The NHL is making a BIG mistake. Some things about this just do not seem to add up decide for yourself.

http://www.keepthethrashers.com/winnipeg.html

Tucker T

May 12th, 2011
2:08 pm

Not a hockey fan so I don’t care too much whether they leave or not. The one reason I would want them to stay is that leaving will reinforce the idea among some in the national sports media that Atlanta is a bad sports town which is not true.

Jeff Schultz

May 12th, 2011
2:08 pm

Tony B. — Thanks. I’ve long felt for Thrashers fans in this city for being subjected to all of this.

ThrashMan

May 12th, 2011
2:10 pm

Hey Tony, people DO care, there are fans. Many of us remember how loud and awesome Philips was during the two playoff games. It was the loudest arena I’ve ever been too during those games. The Spirit becoming the laughing stock of sports ownership is why I stopped being a season ticket holder a few years ago and my ticket rep mentioned that same excuse being why many season ticket holders weren’t renewing. I continue to hope I don’t read the headline “Thrashers Jet to Winnipeg”.

[...] Journal Constitution:  Is NHL abandoning Thrashers, Atlanta after rescuing others.  No question that if this franchise is moved, the NHL is guilty of standing by and letting it [...]

TheShaft

May 12th, 2011
2:13 pm

Spot on, Jeff.

Even if the ineffective management shoulders most all of the blame for the state of the Thrashers, Bettman need to break his silence!

Black Coffee & Bourbon

May 12th, 2011
2:13 pm

Glendale, AZ pledged $25 million for 10 years ($250 million)? How? Where are they getting that kind of money? Bettman needs to realize the NHL doesn’t have to be in every market (especially the Sun Belt) and I feel bad for the citizens of Glendale.

Joe Friday

May 12th, 2011
2:15 pm

What’s the timeline on the latest “they’re gone”? Do I have this right?
1)Glendale votes to keep PHX for another year and fund losses for 10 years

2)Eklund posted a blog yesterday saying 24 to 48 hours announcement that Thrashers to Winnipeg is done, they’re gone

3)Some unnamed Thrashers’ player reportedly texted a reporter saying they’ve heard they need to prepare for an announcement regarding relocation

Is this a perfect firestorm coming together with no substance? Eklund is a moron and is right less often than Kincade. Everyone’s paranoid with the silence out of the NHL, so it’s possible the rumor mill got to the player and it didn’t come from mgt, but he just texted the rumor he sees floating around the internet (started by Eklund).

As soon as PHX is staying, we all knew True North was moving their attention to us. In my blog post that got eaten yesterday, I was conjecturing that the owners (Spirit Squad) were now going to be in the driver’s seat and their sale price just went up as they can use True North as leverage against anyone interested in buying the club to keep them here and mabye the NHL is being quiet as they are also using the leverage of WPG to help the owners sell the club locally? What better way for the Spirit Squad to chum the waters then to allow the firestorm to continue, a firestorm started by, again, Eklund, a anonymous blogger who has no credibility.

I’m turning this all off and going back to work as it’s driving me batty, I think the PHX fans have been going through this for a long time and the end result is they’re staying . . .

Sage of Bluesland

May 12th, 2011
2:16 pm

My long-ago decision to stop subsidizing the utter incompetence keeps looking better and better.

I just hope that blustering, lisping little fraud of a GM (Don Waddell) has to relocate, as well. To think of him still in this fine city, enjoying the fruits of his ineptitude, makes me ill.

What a sad joke this organization is. Just think, it all began with Damian Rhodes…

(and bad decision begat bad decision…but the sheep who kept lapping up the Kool-Aid have provided much entertainment these past six or seven years…I know, because I WAS one of them–for the first three or four years….)

[...] Visit link: NHL News: Is NHL abandoning Thrashers, Atlanta after rescuing others? – Atlanta Journal Constitution… [...]

Mitch Evans

May 12th, 2011
2:23 pm

I’ve got a lot to lose personally if the Thrashers do in fact get moved to Manitoba, and so my anger over this whole sordid situation involves more than just being a fan.

With that said, it is inconceivable to me that the NHL could allow not 1, but 2 teams to leave this city without even thinking twice about it. As for abandoning a top-10 TV market, apparently they just don’t care. Maybe Gary Bettman looks at the fact that his league has 2 teams in the Los Angeles area and the NFL has none, and thus determines it doesn’t matter. Of course, the NHL isn’t the NFL.

ASG is certainly the most responsible culprit involved in this fiasco, but should the worst case scenario play out and the Thrashers do become the Winnipeg Whatevers, the knife that was used to kill hockey in Atlanta — yet again, and possibly forever — will have the fingerprints of the Commissioner himself all over it.

PMC

May 12th, 2011
2:27 pm

BC&B. Ill gotten BCS dollars. The Fiesta bowl is rolling in dirty money.

Guyman 33

May 12th, 2011
2:35 pm

Come on?? Really? People?? They aren’t going anywhere.

Jeff Schultz

May 12th, 2011
2:35 pm

Joe Friday:
1) Theoretically Glendale can fund it for up to 10 years ($250 million total) but that’s a one-year renewable agreement.
2) Eklund is the Jeane Dixon of hockey rumor sites. It’s like quoting somebody saying they just saw Elvis at a Wendy’s.
3) We’ve contacted players and they don’t confirm that.

Tincup9

May 12th, 2011
2:35 pm

The fact the Mayors office felt compelled to make a statement, DISTANCING themselves from this mess is troubling. No comment from them util now? Crap.

Jeff Schultz

May 12th, 2011
2:37 pm

Tincup9 — It could be that they only commented now because they were only asked about it now. But you’re right — it says something that they didn’t feel need to come out with some kind of supportive statement before.

Mike Smith

May 12th, 2011
2:38 pm

I cant help but think they are done here. The silence is telling a lot. I think the big issue is the owners who have made a mess of things. Why bail out Atlanta for the same incompetent ownership? Why do that when they can give another shot to a Canadian city that will be far more excited about hockey than Atlanta currently is?

In my mind, the move is already made. Winnipeg Thrashers? Maybe they will rename them back to the Jets.

3stripes

May 12th, 2011
2:38 pm

The whole situation is frustrating beyond belief. If the Thrashers relocate, I would seriously like to see ASG burned in effigy in the middle of Peachtree St.

SC Ace

May 12th, 2011
2:43 pm

Any chance he lets the Thrashers go to Winnipeg (collecting the $$$ and getting rid of the ASG), only to award an expansion franchise to ATL next time around (2013 or 14) with new ownership? Is this a two-step plan?