(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.)
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
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