(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?
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