Thin ice melts in Hotlanta: Thrashers move to Winnipeg | Sports

Thin ice melts in Hotlanta: Thrashers move to Winnipeg

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The Atlanta Thrashers have finally stopped thrashing.

Goaltender Kari Lehtonen looks into the future of the Atlanta Thrashers during a 2007 game. The Thrashers were sold to a Winnipeg group on Tuesday, ending 11 futile years of hockey in the Peachtree state.
  • Image copyright Fire Wagon Hoceky.
  • Goaltender Kari Lehtonen looks into the future of the Atlanta Thrashers during a 2007 game. The Thrashers were sold to a Winnipeg group on Tuesday, ending 11 futile years of hockey in the Peachtree state.
After 11 largely pointless years skating before a bewildered assortment of transplanted hockey fans, passionless corporate types, and empty stadium seats in the Georgia capital, the Thrashers are packing up and heading north for Winnipeg, Manitoba. Their bumbling ownership group announced the franchise sale with an insincere press release Tuesday afternoon, prompting dancing in the Winnipeg streets and, well, nothing in the shopping malls of Atlanta.

Go ahead, google-map Winnipeg. I’ll wait.

Carolina Hurricanes fans need to know Winnipeg now, since the as-yet-unnamed team will remain a Southeast Division rival for at least the coming season. The Canes will trade a 45-minute flight for a 1,300-mile international commute. Good times.

It’s a red-letter day for the Great White North. Vancouver awakens with a breathless grin this morning, as their Canucks host the Boston Bruins tonight in game one of the Stanley Cup finals, a pinnacle that the franchise has not reached since their 1994 finals loss to the New York Rangers.

And in Winnipeg, they’re likely just getting to bed. Thousands of fans thronged The Forks, a public square at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, sporting moth-eaten Winnipeg Jets sweaters, to watch the press conference announcement on hastily erected projection screens. For many middle-aged Manitoba hockey fans, tonight will be their first good night of sleep in 15 years.

This isn’t Winnipeg’s first NHL team. Their beloved Jets (odds-on favorite for the new team’s name) rode a river of tears to Phoenix in 1996, due to the weakness of the Canadian dollar and a concerted effort by league commissioner Gary Bettman to seed the game in nontraditional, Southern United States markets.

Between 1993 and 1998, four NHL teams pointed moving vans south. The Quebec Nordiques only schlepped as far as Denver, the Minnesota North Stars landed in Dallas, and the Hartford Whalers camped out in Greensboro for a couple of years before roosting in Raleigh.

All three of those franchises have won the Stanley Cup in subsequent years.

Add to that list expansion franchises in Tampa (1992), Miami (1993), Nashville (1998) and—darn it, what’s that last one? oh yes, Atlanta (1999)—and the complexion of the NHL became substantially more tanned by century’s end.

But the novelty of hockey in the South faded, attendance lagged and the league locked out its players in an ugly labor dispute that scuttled an entire season in 2004. Play resumed with a salary cap designed to help the smaller, nontraditional markets stay competitive, but the U.S. economy went into the toilet. The Canadian loonie recovered its value so players no longer took a 30 percent pay cut to play north of the border. Suddenly, the Canadian cities started looking pretty good.

It remains to be seen whether yesterday’s announcement is the first domino in a northward migration for the league. Canadians have complained bitterly for years that Southern cities don’t deserve hockey teams. But despite struggles in Atlanta and Phoenix—which until a month or so ago was Winnipeg’s target—fair-weather teams seem for the most part to be both financially and culturally stable, at least as far as sports franchises go.

Ownership has wavered in recent years in Dallas and Tampa, but the Lightning have settled down and become a powerhouse on the ice, only a couple of Tim Thomas saves away from being in tonight’s finals opener. Nashville, which seems a shoo-in to swap divisions with Winnipeg and become a Canes rival, has grown into a strong team. Miami’s Florida Panthers are shaky and would be the next likely candidate for poaching.

And the Canes are comfortably ensconced in Raleigh. Kids play youth hockey here. Pickup trucks have Canes bumper stickers. Caniacs have set the league-wide standard for tailgating. With the runaway success of last season’s All-Star Game fresh in the minds of fans, and players like Cam Ward, Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner to adore, Carolina has no reason to look north except to get away from the summer heat for a while.

So, is there sorrow in Atlanta? Did Thrashers fans hold a candlelight vigil outside Philips Arena last night?

No. The coolers at the rink have been shut down. The only sound is the clinking of clothes hangers as Thrashers jerseys are moved to the clearance rack. Or to the hardware section next to the shop rags.

Thrashers fans held a public rally on May 21, once it became apparent that the team had a foot out the door. Barely 200 fans showed up. The Atlanta Spirit Group—owners of the Thrashers and the NBA Hawks, not a megachurch or tent revival outfit—sent the Hawks mascot to console them, a good indicator of their ambivalence.

But Atlanta hockey fans—all both of them—should be used to this. It’s not the first time the NHL has failed to fizz like a freshly opened Coca-Cola there. The expansion Atlanta Flames debuted in 1972. Within just eight years they fled to Calgary, which is about as far away as you can go without learning Russian.

When did things go wrong, this time around? Well, there are a lot of nails in the Thrashers’ coffin. It’s hard to say which nail sealed the corpse in for good.

Was it the first nail, resoundingly smacked at the 1999 entry draft, when Atlanta selected center Patrik Stefan with the first overall pick? You will be forgiven if you asked “Who?” Not a great start to the roster, especially considering that Daniel and Henrik Sedin—who lead Vancouver onto the ice tonight—went with the next two picks.

Was it one late September night in 2003, when star winger Dany Heatley smashed his Ferrari into a brick wall at high speed, killing teammate Dan Snyder? EA Sports had to scramble to remove Heatley from the cover of their annual hockey video game. By all rights, Heatley should have gone to prison on a vehicular homicide conviction. Ditching the city and team that rallied to support him, he demanded a trade to Ottawa in 2005.

Or was it the spring of 2007, during the team’s only playoff appearance? After a pair of one-goal losses to the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, the Thrashers proudly hosted their first playoff game. Fans might not have been hysterical but they certainly buzzed, ready to get behind 100-point man Marian Hossa and sniper Ilya Kovalchuk at any sign of a playoff run. Goaltender Kari Lehtonen even dyed his hair blue in the excitement. But the Rangers crushed the Thrashers 7-0 and finished the series sweep the next night. Smackdown.

Kovalchuk drove a nail into the coffin too, once he squirmed out from under the lid himself. Thrashers management, having lost one name player after another, was desperate to keep the Russian scorer as he entered the last year of his deal in 2009, offering him a 12-year, $101 million contract extension. But Kovy’s desire to get out of Atlanta was worth more to him. He forced the team to trade him to New Jersey for spare parts and prospects before they lost him to free agency for nothing.

Despite losing their last superstar, the Thrashers had a good season going this year after poaching several players from the salary cap-strapped champion Chicago Blackhawks, holding a playoff position into the new year. But thug winger Ben Eager might have pounded the penultimate nail with his meaty fist during the Jan. 7 home game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. He unnecessarily roughed up defenseman Dion Phaneuf in the first period of a tie game, and then attacked winger Colby Armstrong in the second, fueling a Leafs power play that produced a 9-3 loss. Eager was suspended by the league and traded to San Jose within a few weeks. The Thrashers, meanwhile, won just four of their next 22 games and missed the playoffs by a scant five points.

Ultimately, though, the ownership group held the hammer in its hands. They didn’t grow the game in a market that obviously needed that. You see youth hockey window decals in Raleigh, sporting goods stores have hockey equipment sections, bartenders don’t have to be asked to put the Canes game on one of the televisions even during college basketball season. Not so in Georgia. And now, never again.

The owners didn’t even try to build a hockey culture. They’ve been angling for the $110 million check they’ll get from the Winnipeg group almost from the moment that Bettman awarded them a franchise just over a decade ago.

So how will things work out in Winnipeg? Well, Winnipeg is the Cree Indian word for “muddy waters.” Although this week’s civic hysteria can’t be understated, there are plenty of reasons for skepticism. Their rink only holds 15,000 fans—only 1,500 less than the Thrashers’ average this season. How much will tickets cost? It’s now the smallest metropolitan market in the league, a quarter the size of Atlanta. Maybe the Jets will draw fans from Fargo, the nearest big city, only four hours to the south. “Big” is a relative term here.

Although Winnipeg is the jewel of Manitoba, players didn’t seem to want to be there in the 1990s and it’s hard to imagine this moment is much different. Think about it. If you were a rich, young athlete, would you rather play in Manhattan or Manitoba? Would you rather live in southern California or north of North Dakota? Hockey is Canada’s game, but Calgary and Edmonton struggle annually to keep and attract name players.

The team that Winnipeg inherits is young and promising, but a long shot to be a playoff team this year. After general manager Don Waddell—perhaps the most exhausted-looking man in NHL history, who won't be moving with the team—mercifully missed out on Kovalchuk, he did a swift and admirable job of restocking the lineup with those dollars. Former Cane stalwart Andrew Ladd now captains the team. The acrobatic Ondrej Pavelec minds the net. Dustin Byfuglien brings brawn and dash to the blueline. Perhaps, buoyed by the grateful crowd, Winnipeg can find its way to the playoff tournament in its return year.

Perhaps. Maybe. Fingers crossed.

Hopeful hockey fans are settling down across the province to their hung-over slumber with smiles on their faces. Visions of Bobby Hull slap shots from the dot and Teemu Selanne rushes down the wing are dancing in their heads.

Sleep well, Winnipeg. And save up your loonies.

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