So now we can officially move one aspect of the Thrashers’ potential franchise relocation from the logical rumor to the fact category.
The AJC has confirmed that Thrashers’ ownership is in negotiations to sell the team to True North Sports and Entertainment, which would move the franchise to Winnipeg. While the negotiations have long been assumed, this is the first time somebody familiar with the NHL process has confirmed talks actually are taking place.
Does this mean the Thrashers’ move to Winnipeg is a done deal? No. Fact is, the Phoenix Coyotes’ move to Winnipeg seemed certain until the city of Glendale, Ariz., stunningly agreed to pay $25 million to the NHL — effectively funding the team — for at least one more season. But the odds still heavily favor the NHL losing its NHL franchise for the second time.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said via email to our Chris Vivlamore, “Nothing I’m prepared to say at this point.” But this is the same Daly who last week said, “I can’t guarantee” that the Thrashers will play next season in Atlanta.
Since I wrote last week that the NHL appeared to be abandoning Atlanta, unlike its very public and passionate stance to save Phoenix, league commissioner Gary Bettman has been catching some heat. USA Today, among others, weighed in with a similar perspective.
One other factor in the Thrashers’ favor is Bettman’s clear dislike for part-owner Bruce Levenson and the rest of the Atlanta Spirit group. He would prefer not to simply allow a sell and franchise move, whereby the Spirit profits. Bettman and the league understand that the Atlanta market has failed is largely because because of the way the franchise has been run.
But in the end, there likely are only a few scenarios in which the Thrashers will stay in Atlanta:
♦ 1.) A financial angel falls out of the sky. But thus far, no prospective owner has come forward with both a stated desire to buy the team and proof of his financial worth.
♦ 2.) Something falls apart on the Winnipeg end (with True North), or from the league’s perspective (other owners may be uncomfortable with the fact new local ownership for the Coyotes still isn’t assured).
♦ 3.) Bettman effectively stalls and gives the Atlanta franchise a one-year stay of execution, telling Levenson and the Spirit that the franchise can’t be moved for next season. It’s not believed the Atlanta Spirit could just walk away from the hockey team and throw the keys to the league. So it’s not certain what would happen if Bettman disallowed a move right now and the Spirit resisted.
There is no official time table on this. But given logistics and the fact next season’s schedule generally is released during or just following the Stanley Cup finals, there needs to be resolution soon.
By Jeff Schultz