Reveling in hockey's roots

Want to know why the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers are no more, and that pro hockey is back in Manitoba?

Just check out the passion meter. When folks in Atlanta held a "Save the Thrashers" rally earlier in May, a grand total of...200 showed up.

But when it was announced last Tuesday that the Thrashers were moving north, thousands turned out in Winnipeg at midday. Traffic stopped. Schools let out to hear the announcement. In short, it was the opposite of Atlanta's total apathy.

Regardless of what others may say, this is a real turning point for the NHL, perhaps a tacit admission by Gary Bettman and his ilk that maybe, just maybe, planting teams in every Sun Belt locale, while neglecting the game's passionate roots, wasn't such a bright idea after all.

Yes, some of it had to do with bad ownership in Atlanta, marked by the sort of infighting and massive debt that also stains the situation in Phoenix, where the one-time Winnipeg Jets moved 15 years ago.

But there's no question that NHL expansion went too far. True, it's worked in Tampa, Carolina and Anaheim, each of whom has won a Stanley Cup in the last decade. San Jose is a cornerstone franchise, too, while Minnesota chugs along.

Yet no one cared in Atlanta, and the same is true in Miami with the Panthers and, of course, with Phoenix. Massive amounts of red ink bleed out of these franchises, and the only crowds that show up at games are transplants pulling for the visitors.

While the NHL devoted slavish attention on selling hockey in warm place that just wouldn't buy (or pay attention), a lot of the league's charm got lost. There was Winnipeg, where a huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth II hung in the rafters, and Quebec, and Le Colissee, where only French was spoken, and Hartford, playing in a mall with that blasted "Brass Bonanza" song stuck in your head.

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