Personally, I thought the Winnipeg Free Press did a pretty good job of how it handled this story. It addressed every single wild rumor, practically down to, "My dog was at the park and heard that..." and then basically shot them all down. Like so many of these reports, this one was unsourced, leaving one to wonder where these come from all of the time. Is it as simple these days as starting a campaign on Twitter? That was about as strong of a source as the Free Press cited.
Nonetheless, the story seemed to whip up the locals into a frenzy, including the city's Mayor Sam Katz who told the paper, "I can tell you when you hear from as many sources I've heard from, there's a good possibility." So the mayor's source, apparently, also was the grapevine. Just a more high-falutin' grapevine. What a surprise -- a politician telling his constituents something that they wanted to hear. Never mind that a spokesman for the group reputed to be the buyer of the Thrashers stated that "it's completely false."
As Winnipeg has a successful AHL franchise, one rumor involved that franchise moving with a junior hockey franchise from Saskatoon taking its place. Both the junior team's owner and the Western Hockey League's commissioner shot that one down.
So, basically, we have a baseless rumor. These ceaseless rumors appear to be fed by a variety of factors, namely Canadians' insatiable appetite for a seventh franchise. With good reason, Canadian hockey fans are upset by the migration of franchises in Quebec and Winnipeg to the United States. One of those, the Colorado Avalanche, became a model for economic and on-ice success while the other became the poster child for quite the opposite. It would be as if the St. Louis Cardinals and the Baltimore Orioles moved to Canada and one played in front of sold-out crowds and won multiple championships while the other played in front of half-empty stadiums in a city that showed no interest -- selling hamburgers to vegetarians as, Sports Illustrated's Michael Farber has put it.
The second factor for these rumors is that many question the economic viability of franchises in nontraditional U.S. markets that have had difficulty in winning and, as a result, drawing crowds. (Ownership problems in Nashville, Tampa Bay and Phoenix have fueled this way of thinking.)
Let me state why Atlanta -- even with an ownership group that has been mired in litigation for eyars -- is different and why, in my opinion, really, I see it as a set of facts, as to why the Thrashers are going nowhere.
Fact No. 1
This under-reported fact basically makes it impossible for the Thrashers to move: On May 10 of last year Thrashers general manager Don Waddell, seemingly out of a desire to put this to rest this issue forever, shed some light on a legal agreement that the NHL and the Atlanta Spirit ownership had previously not publicized. Waddell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (I cannot link to some of these stories because the AJC's archives require a paid subscription) that naming rights to Philips Arena require the presence of both an NHL and NBA franchise. That agreement will pay $9.3 million for nine more years. So there's a paltry 84 million reasons why the Thrashers won't move.
Secondly, Waddell also stated that when the team's current owners, known as Atlanta Spirit, agreed to buy the team in 2003 they signed a binding commitment with the NHL to keep the team in Atlanta for a certain number of years. He would not reveal how many but said the number was "multiple." Of course, I'm sure the lack of specificity could fuel the conspiracy theories, but Waddell, so tired of addressing the issue, said, "I've been through this so many times, but the truth is there are too many obstacles."
Fact No. 2
The NHL wants Atlanta. For those from the Great White North who have never been to Atlanta, the city is far different from Raleigh and Nashville and Ft. Lauderdale and even, to some degree, Phoenix and Tampa.
Atlanta is the eighth largest television market in the United States. Atlanta has 2.3875 million television households, as defined by Nielsen. And the market continues to grow. In 2009, it trailed Boston, the seventh largest television market, by 40,000 TV households. In 2010, it trailed The Hub of Hockey, as Kevin Dupont has christened it, by 33,000. So, it's foreseeable that Atlanta will overtake Boston in a few years. With a population in the metropolitan area of between 4.5 and 5 million (depending how far out of the urban core you go), Atlanta would be the second largest city in Canada.
As a result, the NHL wants and needs a market of this size. Look at the lengths to which the NHL has gone to keep teams in the 12th (Phoenix), 23rd (Pittsburgh) and 26th (Nashville) largest markets. What comes with a market of Atlanta's size are corporations that have enormous amounts of sponsorship dollars to spend. Thirteen Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in Georgia -- most of them in Atlanta with a few others within 100 miles -- including Home Depot (revenues of $71 billion in 2008), Coca-Cola ($31.9 billion) Delta Air Lines ($22.7 billion), UPS ($51.5 billion) and SunTrust Banks ($12.8 billion). Last June, another Fortune 500, NCR, announced it was moving its headquarters to suburban Atlanta. In late 2007, Invesco announced it was moving its corporate headquarters from London to Atlanta.
This is the type of place the NHL knows it has to be. Here's how NHL commissioner Gary Bettman put it to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz earlier this month:
“We think it’s very important [for the league] and we believe that whatever issues the franchise has, they can be overcome, and ultimately the franchise can be successful. We have a strong track record of addressing franchise problems and not abandoning cities. Look at Phoenix. I don’t think you need to go much farther down the road than that. But look at Buffalo, Ottawa, Pittsburgh. All three have had problems at some point, but they’ve all been successful.
“When the ownership situation is resolved, we believe the franchise will be able to move forward. We’re committed to the market. Our track record indicates we do everything we can do to avoid relocation.”Fact No. 3
The NHLPA wants to be in Atlanta. Shortly before the NHL All-Star Game came to Atlanta two years ago, I interviewed then-NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly and we discussed his views on the viability of nontraditional markets. Remember, the NHL salary cap is a function of all 30 teams' revenues, so among the chief jobs of the PA's executive director is to help grow revenues so player salaries will grow commensurately.
Here is the quote in that story from Kelly, a Bostonian, that I always hark back to: "It's obviously vitally important that there be a franchise in Atlanta. I do [believe] more so than others because it's obviously one of the major boom markets of the United States. It's one of the major TV markets.
"Do we need two franchises in Florida? Maybe not ... Do we need another franchise somewhere in Las Vegas? Maybe again, that's a crapshoot as to how a franchise would do in Las Vegas."
Now, that was two years ago and Kelly is no longer running the union. Will his successor espouse the same view? It's hard to say. But the logic -- the population and the dollars -- is hard to dispute.
I'm sure that misinformed Canadian publications will continue to throw out the Thrashers' name when another Canadian city or prospective ownership group announces that it wants to -- surprise, surprise -- return an NHL team to its rightful place. And it's true that the Thrashers' attendance has been down -- Waddell admitted as much when he traded Ilya Kovalchuk recently -- but that is a function of winning as much as anything.
The Thrashers have shown an ability to draw when they provides excitement: They did in their inaugural season and they did in 2005-06 when they narrowly missed the playoffs, with Philips operating at 84 percent of capacity, and again in 2006-07, its lone playoff appearance (88 percent capacity).
As ESPN.com's Scott Burnside, a transplanted Canadian who is now a metro Atlanta resident, has written and observed: Buffalo was thought to be a bad market until the Sabres turned things around post-lockout and became one of the NHL's hottest tickets in 2006-07. The same is true of Washington.
Atlanta is no different.