If I can return to the Thrashers, who as we know won’t be returning …
I don’t blame Atlanta as a city. I don’t blame hockey as a sport. I don’t blame Gary Bettman as a commissioner. I blame the Atlanta Spirit for buying a product that none among their membership really wanted and neglecting it.
In a weird way, I also blame Joe Johnson.
The Spirit took ownership of the Thrashers, the Hawks and Philips Arena in March 2004. In the summer of 2005 Billy Knight, then the Hawks’ general manager, sought to work a sign-and-trade with Phoenix for the restricted free agent Joe Johnson. Knight offered Boris Diaw, who’d been the Hawks’ No. 1 draftee in 2003, and two future No. 1 pick. Steve Belkin, whom the Spirit had installed as the team’s NBA governor, thought the price was too high.
The many other Spirit members moved to overthrow Belkin as governor so that the trade — described by one of the Spirit’s lawyers as “critical to the future of the the Atlanta Hawks” — could be made. Belkin sought a restraining order against his partners, and a Boston judge granted it. (It was in that courtroom that the famous photo of Knight refusing to shake Belkin’s hand was taken.)
Ultimately NBA commissioner David Stern intervened and allowed the other eight Spirit members to buy out Belkin, prompting a triumphant press conference at Philips Arena in which Johnson was introduced as a Hawk and Knight hailed as a conquering hero. But Belkin took his case to a Maryland court, where he found a judge who ruled in 2006 that he could buy out the others.
If you’re charting the Thrashers’ first step toward Winnipeg, start right there. The resulting litigation would last five years and essentially freeze the Spirit’s assets. This became clear when the Spirit — having finally bought out Belkin on Dec. 23, 2010 — filed a lawsuit this January against the law firm King & Spalding for malpractice. In the lawsuit, the Spirit claimed the five-year fight against Belkin had kept the Thrashers from being sold.
There was never a great feeling for hockey among the Spirit. Belkin wanted a basketball team, having tried to buy the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. The Gearons were Hawks fans from way back. (Michael Gearon Sr. had been the Hawks’ president when Ted Turner owned the team.)
If not for the fight against Belkin, the Spirit might well have sold the Thrashers in 2006 or 2008. Instead these owners were forced to keep the team. The Hawks’ payroll kept rising. (With last summer’s $120 million re-upping of Johnson — yep, him again — it became the NBA’s seventh-highest.) The Thrashers’ payroll was consistently among the NHL’s lowest. (It ranked 28th in the 30-team league this past season.)
If you wondered why the Spirit kept Don Waddell as GM as long as it did, the answer was monetary: He didn’t go over his meager budget. With the Spirit spending to fight off Belkin in court and making the attempt — give the owners credit here — to better the Hawks, costs had to cut somewhere. These are wealthy men, yes, but they’re not Arthur Blank.
To no one’s surprise, the two best players in Thrashers history — Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk — were traded ahead of impending free agency. (Neither would take what Waddell was offering to stay.) The Thrashers made the playoffs in 2007 but never again. Attendance cratered, and no wonder.
Timeline: Belkin is bought out in December 2010, which means his 30 percent ownership stake goes away, which means the remaining Spirit members have to shoulder an even greater burden. In January the Spirit files its lawsuit against King & Spalding, a fairly embarrassing tactic — who wants to take on lawyers to court? — that was made necessary because the Spirit was low on money. (The lawsuit identifies $194 million in damages caused by King & Spalding’s mistakes in drawing up an ownership contract that favored Belkin.)
In February Michael Gearon Jr. tells esteemed colleague Chris Vivlamore that the Thrashers are in dire need of outside investors and that if none can be found, the team will be sold even if it means Atlanta loses hockey. “I don’t think there is an ability to stomach another $20 million in losses,” Gearon says, which told us how thinly the Belkin-less Spirit was stretched and brought us, not incidentally, back to Joe Johnson.
Owing to his new contract, he makes $20 million a year. The sale of the Thrashers will bank a net $110 million for the Spirit, which is $10 million less than they paid to keep Johnson through 2016. As simplistic as it may be to say that one basketball player had a direct effect on a hockey team … well, check those numbers.
Both the perception and the reality of the Atlanta Spirit changed in the summer of 2005. Until then, we’d viewed the group as a well-meaning bunch of guys who’d kept two of our teams from falling into the hands of a Texas car dealer. After Knight-versus-Belkin-regarding-Johnson, we saw them as a bunch of squabbling amateurs who couldn’t stay out of court. And those five years of entangling litigation are the reason we’re again without an NHL franchise.
By Mark Bradley