Jun 07, 2011 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
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.
All of them moved, leaving behind small cities where they were the biggest game in town. And it almost didn’t stop there.
Remember that the Pittsburgh Penguins were on the brink of going to Kansas City, and that the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators went into bankruptcy. Between those events and the 2004-05 lockout, it was very easy to abandon the ice for good.
Now – dare we say it, the NHL might be the best league going? Attendance is up. Ratings are up. Stable ownership, like the Pegula family in Buffalo, has insured a long-term future for many different franchises. And now the once-abandoned outposts are returning to the fold.
Meanwhile, the NFL languishes in a lockout, the NBA might head for one the moment the Finals end, and Major League Baseball still deals with enormous economic inequities – not to mention the cash troubles of the Dodgers and Mets in big towns.
Skeptics will point out that Winnipeg, with a population of 750,000 or so, doesn’t have the population base, or economic base, to sustain a franchise through purchasing season tickets or luxury boxes, even in a shiny new arena that has gone up in downtown.
Well, I can pretty much guess that the entire first season of the new Manitoba franchise (the Moose? Maybe the Winnipeg Jets again?) will be sold out, and that the noise at one game in October will equal the 11 years the franchise spent ignored in Georgia.
And if they ever get back to the playoffs…well, just remember that it was Winnipeg that, first, came up with the “whiteout” concept of all the home fans dressed in white that the NBA folks ripped off. The off-the-charts emotions you’re seeing in Vancouver and Boston as they battle for Lord Stanley’s silver hardware would be manifest again.
Going back, and looking at clips of when the Jets left Winnipeg in 1996, you got the sense that players, coaches and front-office men didn’t want to go. They had to go – no new arena at the time, no owners willing to step up, a weak Canadian dollar. It’s something Bettman belatedly admitted when the announcement of the Thrashers’ move was made.
So okay, Mr. Bettman, take it further. End that fiasco in Phoenix and put them in a place like Quebec City, or Southern Ontario, even Kansas City, which has a shiny new arena and longs for a full-time tenant. Anything but the Glendale money pit.
Once people see how the return of hockey to a hockey-crazed place like Winnipeg goes, it would only make sense to have 29 similar situations to make every night from October to June fun and loud.