Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
When it comes to stories reporting that a team’s relocation is “imminent”, the old phrase “if I had a nickel every time I heard that” comes to mind. With the recent travails of the Phoenix Coyotes and Atlanta Thrashers, this phrase has flowed off the lips of hockey writers with a frequency that might be enough to generate insanity in fans of either of these franchises, and Thursday night was just another chapter in that seemingly never-ending saga.
At around 9pm Eastern time, Stephen Brunt of The Globe and Mail reported that True North Sports and Entertainment had agreed to a deal to purchase the Thrashers from the Atlanta Spirit Group and move them to Winnipeg, and was ready to make an announcement of the deal on Tuesday. His report also included revelations that the NHL’s Board of Governors had quietly approved the sale and transfer of the team several months back, and that Gary Bettman was preparing to travel to Winnipeg to make the deal official.
Just as quickly as the report surfaced from Brunt, the denials starting flying in. Scott Burnside of ESPN and Kevin Allen of USA Today were among numerous reporters who said that True North and the Thrashers denied that any deal was done, and while the reporters acknowledged that the deal was likely still close, they were nearly unanimous in their assertion that the sale wasn’t complete. The quick turnaround from excitement back to pensiveness has to be a pain for fans wanting to see hockey return to Winnipeg, but it probably doesn’t compare to the stomach punch that Thrashers fans received.
From the word “go”, this story reeked of a certain degree of nonsense. To start with, the notion that the league’s Board of Governors could approve a sale and keep it quiet for months is laughably absurd. The league office has more leaks in it than the Titanic after it struck that iceberg, and knowing the tenacity of reporters from across the hockey world, there is absolutely no way that this story wouldn’t have broken the instant the last ballot was cast. Certain secrets are kept in today’s day and age, but it doesn’t seem like a vote of this magnitude would be one of them.
The idea that Bettman would willingly head to Winnipeg to participate in the weakening of his southern expansion is also fairly ridiculous. The commissioner has already put his neck out on the line for Phoenix, and it doesn’t seem likely that he would be willing to trot out in front of the cameras as one of his pet projects takes this kind of a body blow.
The final odd component of this story is one that actually cuts both ways. David Thomson, who is the owner of The Globe and Mail, also happens to be a prominent member of the True North group, so you can choose to look at this story several ways. Would the newspaper that the potential owner of a Winnipeg franchise owns get a story involving him wrong? Could it just be a ploy to get more readership and notoriety for his product? Is it possible that Thomson (or someone who works for him) fed the story to Brunt and it is actually true despite all of these denials? Some of these may seem like conspiracy theories, but they are all valid questions when it comes to this sale.
Overall, the common lesson that we’ve all learned yet again is this: until we hear the words from someone like Gary Bettman’s lips, all of these speculative reports that deals are “done” or “imminent” are just that: speculation. In this era of digital technology that allows reports to be posted instantaneously, there has been a surge in the rush to get stories out first, as opposed to getting them out correctly. Obviously this is not to say that Brunt didn’t have actionable intelligence from a source that he had a good deal of faith in, but the speed with which the story was denied by all parties shows that it may not have been that rock solid. There has been plenty of speculation in all directions about relocations, and incidents like this show us all that we have to treat everything that we hear with a big grain of salt.
Stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for all the latest relocation news all summer long.