I simply do NOT have a dog in this fight, let me first say. When it comes to NHL teams moving, I have to admit absolute impartiality. I’ve only lived in one city where a sports team left where I was located and it truly bothered/crushed me depending on my mood at the given time.  That team was baseball’s “AA” London Tigers, who arrived to much fanfare in spring 1989 with players like Travis Fryman and Tony Clark, and left with far less fanfare in 1993 to move to Trenton, New Jersey. 

The combination of lots more accessible baseball on cable/satellite tv, inconsistent performance, some dreary, rainy April/May periods, rising budgets, and a sinking Canadian dollar all took what was a real dream of many, including yours truly, to have a reasonably top-tier minor league baseball franchise in a city of 280,000 was the best.

Thus, maybe not on the same level, nobody truly is an undisputed winner when a team leaves a city, in ANY sport, at ANY level.  Nobody, in relationships, business, or even sport, likes the idea that they’re wrestling something beloved away from someone else, and that includes people, and that certainly includes cities.

I tweeted earlier today about a text message conversation I had with an Atlanta Thrasher player who I was interested in having as a guest on our morning show in Toronto. I’ve gained his trust and he’s gained mine in a couple previous interviews/exchanges, and as such I broached the subject of the stability of the Thrashers staying in Atlanta.  It’s not exactly Woodward & Bernstein stuff, given that a conference call is/was taking place today (May 11th) between at least three parties: 1) True North Sports & Entertainment, 2) Gary Bettman, and 3) The Thrashers ownership group, headmanned in part by Atlanta Spirit LLC.  They aren’t having this conference call to decide where the best places to canoe will be this summer in Cottage Country.

Per my sources, wheels got in motion, and got in motion fast following the Glendale decision to pay the $25 million to keep the Coyotes for at least (some will wager, again, at most) for one more season.  The Thrashers player in question told me he has been told among other things “be ready to move” and to “expect a major announcement regarding the franchise relocating”.  Some of his texts were a tad more pointed than that, and he agreed after, naturally, some persuasion, to let me mention that he has heard such things from people he trusts.

I didn’t ask, and didn’t feel it was my place to ask if this information was coming from Atlanta Thrashers management, and in all honesty, I strongly doubt it is. I would still wager that with the amount of time a management group and coaching staff spends with these players, in transit on buses and airplanes, in meals and social outings, and certainly in team, specialty group (PP or PK), or individual meetings, that the scenario of moving has been discussed before.  None of that is shocking.  Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett and several Coyotes players were quick to point out that, yes, the talk of a possible relocation IS a burden they’ve had to overcome, and it’s a good bet that behind the scenes, there’s been some very frank talk of just that.  Again, several Coyotes players admitted that, of course, it’s a conversation point amongst players.

The same is the case with Atlanta, though the situation is vastly different, as I’ll explain in a couple paragraphs.  I embrace Twitter — but I equally love it and loathe it at times.  Many days/nights, the interaction is good-natured and vibrant and fierce and you can’t get enough of it.  Other times, it’s ugly, and disturbing, and borderline creepy, but I fully embrace it is a tool for me and others to gather news and opinion.  But is Twitter “journalism”?  No one has yet come up with a real definitive answer, and if they haven’t yet, I’m not sure we will anytime soon.

I am not “breaking a story” here.  I don’t KNOW if the Thrashers are moving.  I have opinions on the subject I’m happy to share, but though 90 percent of those who have contacted me about my tweets are understanding, the text conversation I had is hardly groundbreaking, but neither is it inconsequential or trivial – though I might argue it leans more towards the latter than the former in my world.  But in no way do I think the Thrashers called some clandestine team meeting and have announced anything involving their specific geographical location next year, the least of reasons why is there’s probably very few of them in Atlanta right now — in fact, several of them are in Slovakia at the World Championships.  So I’m quite certain that hasn’t happened nor was it even remotely suggested by me. Part of the speculation boils down to this: ask a hockey media member, an esteemed hockey blogger, or, yes, an NHL player or agent this: “Do you think the Thrashers will move to Winnipeg in this particular offseason?”

I’m willing to wager 4 of 5 will say “yes, they will”.  So while, I owe this player anonymity and feel remarkably strongly about that, my guess is that his agent or someone close to the team is either “pretty convinced” or “reasonably confident” that not “a move” but THIS move I’m speculating on could take place.  I am NOT a news-breaker, far from it.  The respect I have for the people who nail the trades on Deadline Day and get word first (and most importantly, accurate) is immense, and they know that.

 But I wasn’t going to ignore the story or the potential rammifications of the player’s comments to me.  Having said that, I can guarantee you the Brady & Lang show won’t be having an “Atlanta Thrasher” player on anytime soon to protect the innocent (and text-worthy).  The player didn’t betray any sacred trust within his organization, and I certainly haven’t to him.  No one has yet suggested it, but someone will at some point accuse me of putting the franchise, its players, its media, its fans under undue stress.  Please, this is a talking point every day among hockey fans in Atlanta – and it has been since the puck dropped Opening Night this past season.  It’s frustrating enough for the players that it’s a wonder with all the continental hockey media focus of the Glendale/Coyotes soap opera, that more haven’t noticed the obvious signs NHL hockey may not last much longer in Atlanta, Georgia, and I include myself in that group that, though I noticed the signs, I’m not sure I saw the absolute writing on the wall.

All that to consider, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can pull rabbits out of hats like no one I’ve seen.  I’ll argue to the grave he’s done far more good than bad for the NHL, and with practically NO exception, if you can win, and your owner isn’t sinking good money after bad into other investments, thus paralyzing your franchise (Tom Hicks/Dallas), you’ll make it work in the NHL.

This is Season #20 in San Jose, California.  The Sharks have never made the Stanley Cup Finals in those 20 years (yet…..).  20 of their 29 counterpart franchises have.  Yet, the fans keep coming, and the sell-outs keep adding up.  You win in the NHL, you generally make it work.  Tampa Bay is winning again and the fans have come back.  The atmosphere at Carolina Hurricanes playoff games is legend in itself.  To indict the fans of Phoenix for not supporting a team that’s never gotten out of the first-round in 16 seasons is ludicrous.  I’ll name you 8-10 markets where the NHL would go belly-up in a big hurry if you don’t get out of the first round for a decade-and-a-half.  That accepted, Atlanta hasn’t found any level of success either with not even a playoff win to their credit.  In fact, as the Thrashers’ diehard fans would probably admit, their spring 2007 series against the New York Rangers was over as quickly as I’ve ever seen any best-of-seven series in any sport be over. 

Here’s what I think has transpired over the last couple months, based on conversations I’ve had — so yeah, if you’re thinking this isn’t “proper journalism” because I’m speculating using a combination of fact and discernible logical conclusions, then feel free to turn away and act, umm, “aghast”.

1. Phoenix looks like an untenable scenario for the NHL.  Can’t make money, can’t find an owner (Hulsizer included) willing to take on the losses AND agree not to move the team anytime in the next quarter-century thanks to the arena lease and the tie-in with Glendale City Council.

2. True North has the money. They have the arena (a touch small by NHL standards but that could change).  They certainly have the fans.  The questions are still for the NHL in Winnipeg: Do they have the corporate support to pump big cash into promotion, marketing, merchandising, tv/radio ads, and as well, to sell out suites night in and night out – because as is common knowledge, even the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t doing that.

3. The NHL and True North begin talking.  And talking some more.  And then blushing.  And then there’s some awkward fumbling of warm hands on cool skin.  Anyway, NHL Franchise Flirtfest 2011 was on and both parties liked what they saw.  If you contrast Commissioner Bettman’s comments on Winnipeg THIS season and the viability of an NHL team moving there, compared to any of the last 4 or 5, you’ll note Bettman is MUCH more positive and engaging.  It’s like he went from slow dancing with Queen Latifah to Marisa Miller.

4. A deal gets struck.  Call me crazy, tell me I’m full of crap, but I strongly believe a deal was done between True North and the NHL. Money was agreed upon, so was a transfer fee, so was a division realignment placement….now there’s only one thing left to do…..no, not seal the deal and make Manitobans everywhere leap for joy…..GO BACK AND GIVE GLENDALE ONE LAST CHANCE!

5. In doing so, the unthinkable and improbable happens…instead of being able to say “we tried everything, but the city won’t give up the cash while we continue doing exactly what we’ve been doing for the better part of 3 1/2 years now, so we’ll break ranks”…..Glendale approves the deal and every man/woman/child in Glendale is hit with a $100 US/person tax bill to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix for the year.  $25 million US gets the job done and Winnipeg/True North are left as lonely as Long Duk Dong’s new-style Yankee girlfriend in Sixteen Candles did after he took Grandpa’s “au-to-mo-beel” to the lake (big lake!).

Hockey people I respect a ton were shocked by this, absolutely floored that even with all the rampant (research-based) speculation about the Coyotes-to-Winnipeg, the logical opposition of The Goldwater Institute, and the seeming air of resignation that almost all the Coyotes players had about their future after they were swept by the Red Wings in the 1st round, they wound up STAYING! 

6. But there is hope for Winnipeg — Atlanta….it’s not working out.  The problems are well-documented and unlike Phoenix:

a) Philips Arena has other tenants, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks (currently filling the joint in the 2nd round of the NBA playoffs) and the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream (currently filling the…umm…well, they’d enjoy your company at a game soon)

b) Unlike Glendale, there is NO chance the city of Atlanta will give a dime, nor would the state of Georgia, to keep a losing proposition running.  So no $25 million, not even close for bailout money — it would never happen.  So why’s it happening in Glendale? So complex, but they clearly feel the community suffers far more by leaving than giving it one more spin of the roulette wheel and hoping for an owner to at LEAST get them to the next NHL season missed by lockout….errr…I mean, hah, I mean, the rubber-stamping of a collective bargaining agreement.

c) The Atlanta Spirit have other investments – so they didn’t cut and run like Jerry Moyes did in Phoenix.  The Spirit LOVE the idea of this sale…they don’t like losing the hockey team, but they have shareholders and investors…..the bottom line is that the Thrashers devastate the bottom line.  They’ve been trying to sell locally in Atlanta for almost a half-decade now.  That costs infrastructure and salaries JUST to try and find a buyer locally.  In the financial world since 2008, a lot of good men and women, not just sports franchise owners, have had to make significant decisions involving losses and sacrifice — this will simply be another on the balance sheet.

So – am I reporting the Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg?  Hell, no.  Let someone else who’s worked 30x as hard on this entire saga take the credit for that.  But do I think they are – oh yeah, I do…I did before I got the conversation rolling with the Thrasher player, and he actually didn’t increase it exponentially.  If I’m wrong, I’ll be able to admit I got bad information — and will endeavour to be smarter in the future….but there’s too many arrows pointing towards this happening.  Gary Bettman gets to keep hope alive in Phoenix and gets to reward Winnipeg with their first NHL hockey game (hypothetically, of course, for now) in about 15 1/2 years this fall.  Bettman wins again.  It’s crappy for the hockey fans of Atlanta, if it turns out this way….and having lived on both sides of the border, having an American child and Canadian child and ALWAYS feeling like I’m “home” in either nation, I wish there weren’t Americans who resent how badly Canadians love hockey and want more teams, just as much as I wish there weren’t Canadians who will snarkily take glee IF a  franchise is snatched from the Deep South and planted in Winnipeg.  Have the party for what you gain, not what the others have lost.

 If I can find out more, I will keep you posted.  Thanks for the conversation, all.

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