Thrashers, Atlanta were never given a chance

Thrashers fans tried hard to keep hope year after year but the deck was stacked against them. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)

Thrashers fans tried hard to keep hope, season after season. But the deck was stacked against them. (Hyosub Shin/AJC)

(Updated: 12:30 p.m.)

This is how it ends: With the weasel of a commissioner not stepping foot in the city, with another season passing without a playoff game, with a lying ownership group maintaining it did all it could to save a franchise that in reality it spent most of seven years wrecking.

Atlanta has lost an NHL expansion team to a Canadian outpost for the second time. The Thrashers are going to Winnipeg just like the Flames went to Calgary in 1980. A press conference was held in Winnipeg, while the Thrashers sent out this warm-and-fuzzy news release: “The Atlanta Thrashers announced today that they have entered into an asset purchase agreement with True North Sports and Entertainment …”

This isn’t about the fans or the market or certainly Gary Bettman’s fictional “covenant” with fans, which I believe he left in the same sock drawer with his conscience. It’s about greed and abandonment, plain and simple. It’s about a disingenuous ownership group, which had long lost any semblance of credibility, serving up fans swill and gruel and then wondering why the turnstiles sleep at night.

They’ll tell you they care. They don’t. They’re walking away with a fat check. While you mourn the loss of a franchise, they’re waving goodbye with one middle finger.

The NHL is leaving a city that never really was given a chance. It’s going back to a city that it left 15 years ago and that has grown by about 60,000 people and a couple of doughnut shops since. They will be discussing this decision one day at business schools, right after the sections on Charles Ponzi and Enron.

Atlanta didn’t fail. The franchise failed. But the NHL doesn’t care about that. This is a league that survives on franchise fees and relocation fees. It collected $80 million from Ted Turner for an expansion fee in 1997. (He joked in the Board of Governors meeting that followed that he could’ve saved $70 million by purchasing the Flames from Tom Cousins for $10 million. Nobody laughed.) The league reportedly will collect another $60 million for permission to move the Thrashers to Manitoba.

In five years, when another failing franchise wants to move into Philips Arena, Bettman will be happy to collect another fat relocation fee, and he’ll deliver the same canned, phony speech about how he always believed in this market. The guy has told so many lies, it’s a wonder he’s not an Atlanta Spirit partner. (One postscript: Bettman referred to them as the “Atlantic” Spirit on Tuesday.)

Now living in Calgary.

Now living in Calgary.

There are hockey teams in Tampa and San Jose and Raleigh, and I could go on. There’s still one inexplicably in Phoenix, which the NHL is floating for another year, maybe because Bettman plans to retire and open up a pawn shop there one day. Is Atlanta an inferior market to any of those cities? Or does product have something to do with it?

There was no reason to do this now. When the Phoenix-to-Winnipeg deal fell apart, the NHL (which owns the Coyotes) was out $170 million. Bettman panicked. So he crossed out Phoenix and wrote in Atlanta. But why couldn’t he have waited a year to see if another owner for the team

Now living in Winnipeg.

Now living in Winnipeg.

emerged? Winnipeg wasn’t going anywhere. Was Bettman that desperate for the $60 million?

“I have absolutely no doubt that this market can support an NHL team,” said Bob Hartley, a native Canadian, a Stanley Cup winner in Colorado and the only coach to get the Thrashers to the playoffs. “It’s a huge disappointment to see the Atlanta franchise leave before so many other cities in the league. I loved it there. My last two years in Atlanta were as exciting as what I went through in Colorado. We had only two [home] playoffs games but it was a Stanley Cup atmosphere. But Hoss [Marian Hossa] left, Kovy [llya Kovalchuk] left, I was gone. It felt like the organization was drained of its energy.”

First player: Damian Rhodes. First draft pick: Patrik Stefan. First coach: Curt Fraser. First general manager: Don Waddell. That was only the beginning. Eleven seasons: one playoff berth, no wins.

Turner was followed by AOL/Time Warner, a bad marriage that was followed by an even worse one: Atlanta Spirit, LLC. Hossa saw no future here. Kovalchuk, given so many misdirections by part-owner Bruce Levenson in  negotiations, wasn’t even sure the team would stay. Both wanted out.

There never was a commitment. There never was hope. There never was a plan — at least not one that worked.

A city just lost a franchise. While you mourn, they laugh. It’s nothing less than shameful.

By Jeff Schultz

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

1,115 comments Add your comment

Chris

May 31st, 2011
10:43 am

First!!!

The only hope now is other teams do not want to give up the ATL TV market, and they don’t want their team to travel to Winnipeg.

Henry Halloran

May 31st, 2011
10:44 am

How will this affect UGA’s 2012 recruiting class? In all seriousness, its annoying that Atlanta will be framed as not supporting this franchise when the reality is that the team and the fans never had the full support of ownership. Unfortunately, I dont see our city ever getting an NHL team again and thats a shame. There is no better live sporting event than an NHL hockey game.

Bobby Walden

May 31st, 2011
10:44 am

Good riddance. Who cares? MOVE ON!

Brian

May 31st, 2011
10:46 am

What a slap in the face……

GTT

May 31st, 2011
10:46 am

mick

May 31st, 2011
10:47 am

now hopefully they will dump hawks next !

BIG BUFF

May 31st, 2011
10:47 am

I don’t want to move to Manitoba!!! Can I please void the contract I just signed?? PLEASE?!?!?!

Ozzy

May 31st, 2011
10:48 am

Clowns for owners. No playoff wins in their history.

Losers.

Don’t let the door hit you.

Scott

May 31st, 2011
10:48 am

bobby, then why are you spending the time to stop by and comment on the article?

Buzz

May 31st, 2011
10:49 am

Screw the Atlanta Spirit group. I will never buy or watch another hawks game as long as those SOB’s own the team.

sarfdawg

May 31st, 2011
10:49 am

Schultzie, I rarely agree with you, but I couldn’t side with you more on this. What a train wreck this whole sham of a franchise has been. Not only has Bettman insulted “the fan base” here in Atlanta, the franchise itself has tried to snow Atlanta with Don Waddell. What a fraud.

For those that are hockey fans – all 250 that showed up to the Gulch a couple of weeks ago – the best thing that can happen is that this cancerous organization is cut out and perhaps be replaced by one that is serious about competing. As Jeff said, maybe in five years.

Matt from MN

May 31st, 2011
10:49 am

Burn in Hell, Gary Bettman and ASG. Liars to their very core.

BirdsStaySouthThisWinter

May 31st, 2011
10:51 am

Well written and right on point.

Bettman and the members of the Atlanta Spirit ownership group should all rot in hell.

PMC

May 31st, 2011
10:51 am

Just want to say a quick note of thanks to Bob Hartley, as it appears that he was the only one actually trying to win here.

John

May 31st, 2011
10:51 am

Great article Jeff! We should all thrown in $$ for a billboard with a pic of Bettman and the Atl Sprit shaking hands and say ******* liars

Middle Finger

May 31st, 2011
10:51 am

Back at you Bettman

DB

May 31st, 2011
10:51 am

The NHL is dead to me.

shawn

May 31st, 2011
10:51 am

People of Atlanta should stick it to ASG by not supporting Hawks and the good news is that they can not move Hawks and have to sell it..Now, here’s a question: Do you think that ASG is the worst owners that Atlanta have had? MY answer is YES..

Lost Hope

May 31st, 2011
10:52 am

I hope the ASG partners all rot in hell!!! I for one will NEVER watch another hockey game, go to another hockey game or every step foot in Phillips Arena see the Hawks or support the Atlanta teams owned by the lowsey ASG again!!! I hope the NBA locks out and the NBA goes bankrupt and everyone on the ASG looses everything they have!! See you on the soup lines!!!

All I can say is if this was the Hawks this was happening to the Atlanta Mayor would have fought life and death to keep this in the city….and gee I wonder why! I hope when all the rebuilding and all the businesses around Phillips go belly up because there are now less people downtown he wonders why and people around the city are now out of work he can point his finger to not fighting for the Thrashers and keeping the hockey team here!

I hope the Hawks are the next to go! They suck just as bad and always have….lets get rid of them while we are at it!

PMC

May 31st, 2011
10:52 am

I guess this version of the Omni rusts from the inside out.

Edward

May 31st, 2011
10:52 am

Great commentary, Jeff. It’s a sad day indeed. It will be revealing to see how anxious the Atlanta Spirit group will be to unload the Hawks and the arena now that they’re rid of the hockey team or whether that was a song and dance to make it look like they were in desperate straits as a whole.

Rich T

May 31st, 2011
10:52 am

Turn out the lights …

Baldheaded Thrasher Fan

May 31st, 2011
10:53 am

I’ll never set foot in Philips Arena as long as ASG owns it!

Rich T

May 31st, 2011
10:54 am

To the family of the late Rankin Smith: I apologize for all those things I thoughts or said about you over the years.

Miami Screaming Eagle

May 31st, 2011
10:54 am

This is an embarressment for our city. We just lost a major sports team to a Canadian outpost!
Now we have 3 major sports teams that win a championship every 50 years.
WE ARE THE CLEVELAND OF THE SOUTH!

Henry Hall-Waldron//do you understand this?

Nick

May 31st, 2011
10:54 am

Glad they’re leaving – tired of this cancer that has been on our city for the past year. Hopefully Waddell and the ASG will fold their tents and carry their asses to Winnipeg as well.

Matt

May 31st, 2011
10:54 am

The Atlanta “I have no spirit” ownership group, better sell the Hawks in the end. I will not support the Hawks as the ownership group has not supported our city. They will not get a penny out of me. I just hope ownership packs there bags and moves too.

Richard Alpert

May 31st, 2011
10:54 am

So what does this mean for the Gwinnett Gladiators? We live about 35 min from the G-arena and LOVE going to their games. Are they gone too?

D. Scott

May 31st, 2011
10:56 am

Hey Schultz, no need to take a shot at Winnipeg. They didn’t do anything to deserve your vitriol except have an owner who was willing to bid on a product that nobody wanted. Take a look around the city of Atlanta and place your anger where it is deserved, owners present and past who didn’t know how to market the product to your audience. I have no doubt that it could be done, unfortunately no one seems willing to put the effort and imagination into the project. Too bad, it should have worked in Atlanta. It almost seems that there are those who wanted it to fail, follow the money and there is much more than the $60 million relocation fee at stake. I’ll bet the Thrashers were used in some financing scheme involved with Phillips Arena.

ChippersLoveChild

May 31st, 2011
10:56 am

Just sad.. this team could have done so much with the right owners… We once sported a roster with Hossa, Kovalchuk, Savard, and Lehtonen. With vets like Bondra and Kozlov… with the right ownership that roster could have grown and this city would have never looked back… crazy what could have been if they didn’t have to go through eight goalies that year.

reebok

May 31st, 2011
10:57 am

good riddance. in 5 years a struggling franchise will re-lo to here and we will have a real team instead of the bad joke that was the thrashers.

Kaleb

May 31st, 2011
10:57 am

Thanks for the great article Jeff.

Kevin

May 31st, 2011
10:58 am

Sad day for this City. This is a great article that is absolutely correct. The passion for this team was there from the outset, the electricity in the building for the two playoff games was unbelievable. One only has to look at all of the successful youth hockey programs in the area to see how great an interest is being taken in hockey in the Metro Atlanta area. This ownership group absolutely ran this franchise into the ground, Hossa commented that he would have liked to stay but he realized that the owners only real commitment was to the NBA, Kovy soon followed and the list of free agents looking to sign was short.

Gary Bettman’s actions are without a doubt the worst I have ever seen by a sports commissioner,He makes Selig look competent. Also, where has Kasim Reed been, his comments show his complete lack of understanding of how losing a NHL franchise will affect the City’s economy. Even with only 10,000 to 12,000 at the arena, money is being spent in the food court, at Taco Mac, Dan Tanna’s. People in the arena are working at the concessions area’s, ticket windows, money is being spent for parking. It is a big hit for a downtown area that is mostly dead after 500 PM, but the Mayor says we will be fine.

Shameful is right.

dtanner

May 31st, 2011
10:58 am

who gives a damn

Lost Hope

May 31st, 2011
10:58 am

Anyone know a good lawyer who can sue the league to stop this sale from happening? There have been reports of at least 3 other buyers (local buyers) who have come forward who ASG have not allowed to bring rightful rights of purchase for the team!! The NHL bylaws require this of local buyers before a team can be relocated. This has to be allowed and must be opened as public record!!

There must be something that can be done to stop this sale from happening????

Winnipeg = Poverty

May 31st, 2011
10:58 am

Calgary is not a Canadian outpost that’s why they held the 1984 Winter Olympics and Atlanta should never be ashamed of losing the Flames to them. Winnipeg on the other hand is a Canadian outhouse that could quite possibly be the worst human inhabited area of North America. Atlanta should be ashamed of losing its NHL franchise to this joke of a nearly empty frozen ghost town. This franchise will be on the move again in the future you can count on it and in the meantime Atlanta loses and the NHL & NHLPA really loses by this really dumb shortsighted move to tiny market with no corporate base and arena MTS Centre that is an absolute joke as compared to Philips arena. I wonder how the corporate sponsors of the NHL in the U.S. view this move as well as the big market U.S. teams that now have to sell Winnipeg as a viable franchise on the sport stations and at the ticket windows because who wants to pay to see Winnipeg?

PMC

May 31st, 2011
10:59 am

Let them laugh anyway, they are the ones on the hook for Joe Johnson the next umpteen years.

These guys manage money like the McCourts.

Kbrab

May 31st, 2011
10:59 am

Atlanta Spirit Group are the worst owners in sports history. The make the Smith’s family ownership of the Falcon’s look like the Rooney’s in Pittsburgh. This is a very sad day for me.

litz

May 31st, 2011
10:59 am

Well said, Jeff.

I just wonder … fly on the wall, and all that … what the reaction will be (and who will they sue) next year when the NBA is locked out and Philips is dark 82 nights … with no income at all.

I guess we’re down to two hail-mary longshots … 1) BoG doesn’t approve (anyone wanna buy a bridge? ’bout same chances) … 2) ASG devolves into some kind of legal breakdown, and the deal falls apart.

Otherwise, better get out those maps and figure out how to get to Gwinnet Arena during evening rush hour ….

gretschdrum

May 31st, 2011
11:00 am

Jeff,

Best, most truthful article ever written regarding NHL and ASG. Not many have the guts to write it much less publish it.

Guyman 33

May 31st, 2011
11:00 am

Well said Jeff.

Atticus

May 31st, 2011
11:01 am

Eff the NHL and Eff the ASG. NEVER will I pay another $$ to Phillips Arena, or the Hawks. NEVER.

Delta House- Faber College

May 31st, 2011
11:01 am

Levenson- Dead, Gearon- Dead, Bettman -DEAD! Nothing this bad has happenned since the German’s bombed Pearl Harbor!

Manatee

May 31st, 2011
11:02 am

Outpost? Winnipeg has a larger population than Buffalo (Sabres) and Raleigh (Hurricanes) combined. Stick with NASCAR and Braves baseball…..

jon in florida

May 31st, 2011
11:03 am

What’s the NHL?

party up

May 31st, 2011
11:03 am

you mean that blowout party of 200 people at the gulch, where the atlanta hawks mascot showed up, didn’t convince the league to keep the franchise in atlanta??? come on! That was a real party.

Buzz

May 31st, 2011
11:04 am

Eh, not if your ownership spends like ours did. Hope the team burns in hell

Bluestreak

May 31st, 2011
11:04 am

I hope Ted slaps Rutherford at Thanksgiving for lying that he’s as torn up as the rest of the fans. We aren’t getting a cut of that payment are we? We had no choice, no voice.

I bet Bettman has plans to use Atlanta for another relocation (like you say Schulty), maybe even Phoenix. But either way, I know that he’ll make sure the new owners are a heck of a lot better than the ASG Clowns.

schmeckdawg

May 31st, 2011
11:05 am

Atlanta= 40-50 degree winters and awesome women. Winnipeg= -40-50 degree winters and eskimos…SERIOUSLY, NO OFFENSE!!!!!!

Y’all enjoy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

SadHockeyFan

May 31st, 2011
11:06 am

Great article Jeff.

As others have said, I will never set foot in Philips until it is owned by someone else. I’m also never following NHL hockey ever again. This has to be one of the dumbest moves by a “professional” organization. It just further solidifies that the NHL is a second rate organization and is well on it’s way to being the 5th/6th most popular league in the US.

The vast majority of American’s don’t care about hockey, and this is a perfect example why.