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A “True North” NHL – With the Thrashers Gone, it’s Time for a Change

June 2, 2011

They say that the third time is the charm, right? The second attempt at NHL hockey in Atlanta certainly wasn’t.

The Atlanta Thrashers have officially become the worst attempt at a sports franchise since the California Golden Seals moved to Cleveland after the 1976 season and then actually agreed to merge with the Minnesota North Stars in ’78. I can’t imagine we’ll ever see two teams agree to a merger anytime soon, too many egos would get in the way with legitimate professional sports franchise owners and the only group meek enough to agree to such a cop-out of a deal just sold their team for $32 million less than the Red Sox plan to pay Carl Crawford. The Thrashers leave town with one division title, one playoff appearance and no playoff wins. Shit, somehow Montreal managed to keep baseball around for 35 years and they even tripped and fell into two hall of famers in the process. The Atlanta Spirit Group, the former Thrashers owners who sold their hockey franchise in order to focus full-time on driving the Hawks into the ground, agreed to a deal that most people would only accept if they were pawning stolen car stereos.

This isn’t an article that’s about to talk about the Thrashers deserving a better chance or anything. The sad fact of the matter was that the team was riddled with a combination of mistakes from an incompetent front office and downright bad luck. There was the 1999 draft when the Thrashers used the number one overall pick on Patrick Stefan’s illustrious career in which he netted 188 points over the course of seven seasons. The two picks immediately after Mr. Stefan were a duo of Swedish twins named Henrik and Daniel that have each tallied a 100+ point season within the last year and laced up the skates last night to play for the Stanley Cup. In the 2003 draft, perhaps the most prosperous draft class the NHL has ever seen, the Thrashers went with Braydon Coburn. Not only was Coburn a bad choice in front of names like Phaneuf, Jeff Carter, Parise, Getzlaf, Kesler and Corey Perry, but they traded him a year and a half later for an absolute dud in Alexi Zhitnik. Meanwhile Coburn has at least turned into a productive part of Philadelphia’s blue line. Atlanta saw just as many troubles via free agency as they were unable to hold any real star power past one contract. Marquee players like Hossa and Savard wanted no piece of Atlanta, and Ilya Kovalchuk spent a season blaming the ownership for not keeping him around before agreeing to a deal with New Jersey worth $1 million more than the Thrashers had offered him to stay. The most tragic of all of Atlanta’s misfortune occurred in 2003 when Dan Snyder died in a car accident with teammate Dany Heatley behind the wheel. The event threw two seasons out of wack and Heatley eventually left Atlanta right as the team was on the up and up. You could do an entire book on how awful the front office was from ’99 to ’11, but I don’t have the time for that monster.

The Thrashers had one other damning trait. The team was forced to deal with the overwhelmingly fickle Atlanta fans that never truly got behind the team. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of folks around Atlanta today that love hockey and more specifically love Thrashers hockey. I’m one of them…when they don’t play the Bruins. The Thrashers inspired plenty of Atlanta kids to play the game and boosted the hockey community in the city, but the hockey market in Atlanta is an odd thing in itself. Because Atlanta’s population has exploded with transplants from other cities in recent years many people attended Thrashers games to see teams like Boston or Detroit come to town. Plenty of folks planned their game or two a year around their hometown favorites, or one of the three times a year Alexander Ovechkin came to town. There was definitely a respectable fan base in Atlanta that sincerely loved the team, but the truth is that it’s just hard to get average Atlanta fan into the building unless your team is winning, and the ASG did absolutely nothing in its power to instill public confidence in their product.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue that Atlanta really deserved the Thrashers compared to the hockey-starved people of Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s too bad the team is gone and all, but everyone will eventually get back to football, grilling, golfing, hitting the lake or whatever other enjoyable activity you can do outdoors in the fine Southern weather. But life in Winnipeg? The hearty people of Winnipeg now have something to get them through another winter that will inevitably see 30 below centigrade at some point. I can’t say I’m not happy for them, to an extent.

I won’t hold any ill will towards Winnipeg, but fuck the NHL. Gary Bettman and the NHL have arbitrarily isolated one fan base in preference of Phoenix’s flailing franchise (get ready Quebec City!). Bettman never went out of his way to reassure Atlanta like he had Phoenix. The worst commissioner in professional sports avoided the Atlanta questions like Travis Henry dodges condoms. After spending months affirming to Phoenix fans that the NHL wouldn’t abandon them and that they were committed to the Coyotes, Bettman didn’t utter a word of confidence to Atlanta. Almost immediately after the city of Glendale, AZ voted to pay the NHL $25 million for lost revenue from the Coyotes the Thrashers became the target of every relocation rumor, and there wasn’t an NHL officer between here and Toronto to make a real public effort to deny it.

It’s common knowledge that the NHL expanded too far south in the last 20 years and that some of this is to bring the game back to its most appropriate markets. Honestly moving the team back north is just good business, give the people what they want. However, let’s go further. Now that I’m going to have to drive almost 5 hours to see any live NHL action, I have to admit I’m getting pretty salty that cities like Dallas, Sunrise, Tampa Bay and LA get to keep their teams. A team like LA has great support and a great product, but we at least got snow in Atlanta last year. How much did you get LA?

No, this calls for wiping the slate clean. Let’s do something very un-Bettman and commit to a plan at 110%. Now that the Thrashers are gone, no teams south of Atlanta should have hockey teams. We’ll clean it up, get hockey to true hockey markets, and whether it makes money or not there will at least be principles. We’ll make hockey’s Mason-Dixon line Raleigh, NC. Why Raleigh? They have a Stanley Cup, two of the best players in the game in Cam Ward and Eric Staal, a loyal fan base (they tailgate games like its football, it’s a wonderful experience) and they’re responsible for the single greatest jumbotron gimmick I’ve seen in professional sports. Everything south of Raleigh, you’re toast. I know that Carolina’s and Tampa Bay’s credentials are almost identical, but this is a newer, ballsier and fantastically hypothetical NHL, Tampa, go support the Rays. You might have a great history/ownership/front office but fuck off, we’re doing this thing all out.

So here’s the plan. Atlanta’s relocation leaves five teams geographically south of Raleigh. It’s safe to say that the NHL is over expanded to begin with so for the sake of parity we’ll go ahead and contract one team. Florida, sorry but you’re done. Anyone privileged enough to have NHL Center Ice or unfortunate enough to have nothing else to do on the night their team played the Panthers knows that this was essentially an AHL team. Hell, Binghamton and Hamilton would probably have beaten that team in a seven game series. No retirement community should house a hockey franchise, especially not one that shares the same latitude as the Western Sahara territory.

After a contraction draft that might net seven teams with players they won’t cut by the end of camp, we’re down to four teams. Pack your bags, because it’s time to pick the four most interesting spots for a new, “true north” NHL.

Quebec City, Quebec – This one is easy because they’ll most likely be getting a team within the next two years. The old Nordiques were lost more due to the inferiority of the Canadian dollar to the USD at the time than lack of support, and this appeal is certainly good enough evidence that support won’t be an issue this time around either. The return of the Nouvelles-Nordiques will also provide some great rivalries, namely between Montreal, Toronto and Boston. Quebec City and the surrounding area is the birthplace of countless NHLers and the potential for hometown heroes is staggering. It’s tough to imagine La Viellie Capitale won’t get a deal done soon, so we’ll send Phoenix up there and call that set.

Hamilton, Ontario – The city of Hamilton hasn’t had an NHL franchise since 1925, but in the true north NHL what’s old is new again. Hamilton has been in relatively serious relocation discussions since 2006, although nothing has materialized thanks to the NHL’s equivalent of the Mark Cuban-MLB feud. The biggest argument against a team in Hamilton is that it would poach fans from both the Toronto and Buffalo markets, but we’re talking about hockey in Canada. I’m not buying it. Toronto fans still sell out the arena despite a garbage team and a forty-four year cup drought, the city of Toronto alone can carry that team and Buffalo is on sound footing with a new owner and a fervent fan base thanks to Ryan Miller and a lack of other entertainment options in Buffalo. Not only would it open up killer rivalries with Buffalo, Toronto, Ottawa and possibly Detroit, Hamilton would have an owner that is ape shit crazy for his team. Jim Balsillie would do whatever it takes for a Hamilton team, and he could potentially fuel a good ole’ Canadian arms race. We’ll move Dallas out here, they’re a solid enough team that would be competitive early on but could use the extra push by the Balsillie regime to springboard it to the next level.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin – Milwaukee already has MLB and NBA franchises, so why not add the city of over 2 million to the NHL mix? The city’s location allows for geographic rivalries with Minnesota, Chicago and Detroit. Unlike a city such as Hamilton that would need to build a new arena before acquiring a team, the Bradley Center in Milwaukee currently seats 17,845 for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. The capacity is not as large as Montreal’s Bell Centre or the Wells Fargo Center in Philly, but it does house more than the TD Garden in Boston and the Prudential Center in New Jersey. Milwaukee would also give the Wisconsin Badger nation the potential to follow hometown heroes from the collegiate level to the pros. Tampa seems a good fit to move to the Brew city, their quick-strike capability is a very Western Conference style of play that would produce some great games when they played Vancouver a couple times each year.

Seattle, Washington – Seattle just recently joined the NHL discussion, but it seems like a pretty logical step. In keeping with Seattle’s reputation for progressiveness, an NHL team could boost the hockey community in and around the city to new heights. Seattle currently is home to the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, so the same sort of hometown nostalgia factor discussed about Milwaukee has some merit in this city too. Most importantly, Seattle is home to a dedicated fan base. Seahawks fans are responsible for more false starts by the visiting team than anywhere else in the NFL, and as much as I fervently despise the MLS the Seattle Sounders have sold out every single match they’ve played since the team started in 2009. By the way, this should be the test for if your city deserves a sports franchise. If the people of Seattle can get behind an MLS team they’ll get behind anything. Give them an NHL team on that merit alone. A hockey team in Seatown would also go a long way in healing the wound left by the Sonics’ departure. It sucks and all that the Thrashers are leaving, but Atlanta isn’t losing anyone with a fraction of the star power or ability of Kevin Durant. I’ll miss watching Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Ondrej Pavelec, but if they have success in Winnipeg I’ll be quite happy for them. If KD left town and was putting on the shows he is night in and night out, I’d never watch basketball again. The Seattle franchise would also give Vancouver a nice rivalry, and by moving the Kings up the West Coast we can still make sure that Roberto Luongo and Jonathan Quick duel it out six times a year. I’m liking this idea more and more.

There you have it. Obviously with these movements you would need to restructure the divisions but the conferences could pretty much stay in tact. I won’t get too far into the possibilities but I have to say I love the potential of a Northeast division consisting of Quebec, Montreal, Boston, New York and Ottawa. Every division game would be a blood bath…it’d be amazing. But at the end of the day what’s most important is getting hockey to those that truly love it. The NHL won’t ever compete with the MLB, NFL or NBA because it really is a niche sport. However, hockey fans are, as much, if not more passionate about their sport than any other sports fan. Rather than expand to money markets the NHL should turn to where hockey is life and embrace those areas.

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