Relocation Roulette: Things Heating Up in Atlanta As Winnipeg Rumors Swirl

Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent

On another off-day on the NHL schedule, relocation rumors once again carried the day. With the Phoenix Coyotes seemingly locked in to Arizona for at least one more year, the Atlanta Thrashers now have the proverbial target on their backs of everyone who wants a new team. Whether it be Kansas City, Seattle, or Winnipeg, every city with dreams of obtaining a relocated team is looking at the Thrashers with hungry eyes, and on Monday, one of those cities seemed to take a big step toward obtaining them.

Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported earlier today that the Atlanta Spirit Group, the group that owns the Thrashers and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, has engaged in negotiations with True North Sports and Entertainment, a group that wants to purchase a team and move them to Winnipeg. Vivlamore also reported that no agreement has been reached, and that the negotiations aren’t exclusive.

The NHL didn’t have a comment on the development, and Bill Daly said that there was “nothing I’m prepared to say at this point.” This comes after a comment he made last week to AJC writer Jeff Schultz when he said that he could not guarantee that the Thrashers were going to stay in Atlanta for the 2011-12 season.

Atlanta Thrashers (BridgetDS/Flickr)

In other developments on Monday, Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gary Lawless reported that sources were telling him that the NHL was preparing two separate schedules for next season: one with a team in Winnipeg, and one with a team in Atlanta. This likely backs up a scenario that TSN’s Bob Mackenzie brought up that would involve a Winnipeg franchise playing for its first season in the Southeast Division, since it is unlikely that the league would be making up schedules with Winnipeg in the Northwest Division and other teams shifting around.

After all of the Winnipeg news broke, Vivlamore also had a story in the AJC about a group meeting with the Atlanta Spirit that is interested in keeping the Thrashers in Atlanta. He did sum up his attitude towards that meeting in his tweet reporting it when he said that “time has become biggest issue.” With the NHL schedule currently being finalized, the league is going to want to get this situation resolved quickly, and it seems as though the True North group is in a better position to buy the team and move it north, as opposed to these other groups who are exploring keeping the team in Georgia.

Amid all of this rushing to get something done, there is a growing sentiment among some media members that the NHL is doing Atlanta a disservice by not trying to keep the Thrashers in Georgia as it has to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix. Kevin Allen of USA Today probably did the best job of this in his piece that he published on Friday, arguing that the league needs to try everything it can to maintain a position in the country’s 9th-biggest television market, especially considering the massive $2 billion television deal they just signed with NBC. He also brought up how unfair it was that a team who actually turned a profit in its first few years in the league should be hung out to dry when a team that hasn’t broken even in 15 years has been given every opportunity to succeed.

With all of the rumors swirling as to whether or not the Thrashers are going to stay in Atlanta, the biggest talking point has been how the league will realign itself if the Thrashers move to the Western Conference. The author suggested that the Blue Jackets move to the Southeast Division, and Columbus Post-Dispatch writer Aaron Portzline seemed to agree with that idea. Jimmy Devellano, Senior VP of the Detroit Red Wings, said that the Wings will for sure remain in the Western Conference for at least another season, and others have backed that view up. Finally, Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News suggested a huge realignment, with a Central team moving to the Southeast Division, the Avalanche moving to the Pacific Division, and the Stars moving to the Central Division.

Relocation talk comes with all sorts of additional topics beyond just whether or not a team moves. There’s always the talk about whether or not the league involved did everything it could to protect the fans of a team, and there’s then the discussion about how the league should realign should a move happen. All of those are of course fascinating talking points, and definitely are great fodder for those of us in the writing business, but a tweet from Dan Kamal, the radio voice of the Thrashers, summed this whole situation up beautifully. Casting the rest of this talk aside, he expressed hope that the league and its owners will keep the little people in mind. He tweeted “the professional and financial fates of so many will be impacted by a franchise relocation, if it happens. Hope that’s part of the dialogue.”

Well said, Mr. Kamal. It may be fun and games for those of us who write and debate league happenings from afar, but to the people on the ground, from peanut vendors to front office executives, this is a deathly serious matter.

Stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for all of the latest happenings throughout the league, including updates on all of the relocation chatter.