Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
Before Saturday night, the events of this past week have largely been positive for the Atlanta Thrashers. On Tuesday they re-signed defenseman Dustin Byfuglien to a five year contract that will cement him as a cornerstone of their blue line corps for years to come. Negotiations with Andrew Ladd on a new contract are also looking good, and they also pulled off a nice trade by acquiring Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart from the Boston Bruins for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik.
On Saturday night, however, ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun dropped a bombshell that has the potential to make all of those good news items moot. On CBC’s Hot Stove program, LeBrun revealed that the ownership situation in Atlanta is a lot more dire than has been previously let on.
On the show, and in an article on ESPN.com, LeBrun said “the league is trying mighty hard to find a new owner who is willing to keep the team in Atlanta.” While this bit of news isn’t exactly surprising, what follows is a huge kick to the stomach for Thrasher-Nation:
“Should a new owner not be found in the next six to eight weeks, we’re told the Thrashers could indeed be up for relocation and Winnipeg would very likely be the new home.”
With the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes appearing to be coming to a close within the next ten days, the city of Winnipeg undoubtedly slumped its shoulders and shed a bit of a tear. Their best chance at getting a hockey team since the Jets left back in 1996 had gone out the window, but if LeBrun’s report is to be believed, then the Jets may very well make their return in 2011, but not in the way that a lot of folks in Canada thought.
Before anyone gets their horse ahead of the cart here, one thing needs to be kept in mind: the NHL isn’t going to let the team flounder on its own. They have shown a willingness throughout the Phoenix debacle, as well as in similar situations in Tampa Bay and Buffalo, to help teams down on their luck find new owners to keep them in their present cities. While the situation in Atlanta is apparently more dire than anything those other clubs experienced, there is potential hope on the horizon for hockey fans in Georgia.
Earlier this week, Stephen Rollins, an Atlanta-native and owner of the film production company Lightning Pictures (how ironic), expressed interest in buying the club from the Atlanta Spirit, the team’s current owners. Obviously this group would jump at the chance to sell the team to Rollins, but the question is whether Stephen would be willing to take on such a toxic asset. In the past five years alone, the Thrashers have lost approximately $130 million, according to the Spirit group, and Rollins expressed caution when asked about the potential transaction by MSNBC.
Even though Rollins could be a knight in shining armor for this franchise, the reality of the situation is that the compressed time frame that LeBrun suggested could be a death knell to anyone interested in buying the franchise. If the Phoenix situation taught us anything, it’s that these sales take a good amount of time, and six to eight weeks isn’t exactly a long time to look through a team’s books and decide whether or not you want to purchase them.
If the league is unable to find a suitor to keep the team in Atlanta, there are definitely several parties who would undoubtedly vie for the chance to move the team to their city. Jim Balsillie, long spurned by the NHL, could launch a new offensive to buy a team and move it to Hamilton. Mark Chipman has deep pockets and a burning desire to see a team moved back to Winnipeg. There are even groups who would be willing to move a team to Quebec City, although their new arena project is only now getting started and hasn’t even broken ground yet.
While cities like Seattle and Kansas City could make efforts to get the team into their vacant arenas, the reality of the situation is that the city of Winnipeg is probably the most NHL-ready if that domino does indeed fall. The MTS Centre is a very nice arena, and while the seating capacity is only around 15,000, the league couldn’t do much better on such short notice.
With so much attention focused on the ownership situation in Phoenix, the Atlanta situation has largely flown under the radar. If LeBrun’s report is correct, this powder keg may be ready to explode, and this may be the last season that the Thrashers call Atlanta their nesting place.
Will Gary Bettman step in and save the Thrashers, or will a team finally make its way back to a city that has been praying for one for the last 15 years? These next two months will reveal the answers, and people in two cities will be holding their breath until then.