This week news broke that the Atlanta Thrashers could be very close to returning NHL hockey back to Winnipeg. As a Canadian I greet this positively, as I feel hockey should be played in locales that want and understand the sport. Growing the game is great and all, but hemorrhaging money on losing Southern franchises makes little sense to the sport as a whole. Putting franchises in Winnipeg, Hamilton or Quebec may not be glamorous locales, but they are viable places with actual fan bases to draw on instead of markets that were granted expansion franchises with the hope they would find an audience.
Now if the Thrashers do end up sealing the deal and Jetting North, the question I ask is why was Atlanta so easy to move? The NHL has fought tooth and nail to thwart attempts to move the Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton, and subsequently Winnipeg, yet seems to be essentially letting the Thrashers fly.
I have long held the belief that Commissioner Gary Bettman is anti-Canadian as far as how he has run the league over the years. He has always been star eyed over more flashy US cities that feature NFL, MLB and NBA franchises, than he ever has about Canadian cities. I’m sure if he could have teams in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, then the rest in the US would probably be his ideal scenario, but since Canadian clubs pull in a huge chunk of the leagues overall revenue there’s no way that could ever happen.
The reason I believe the NHL was entirely unwilling to move the Coyotes is because they didn’t want to chance repeating the scenario of the Quebec Nordiques move to Colorado, where one season removed from moving they were hoisting the Stanley Cup in Denver. Phoenix is a young, hungry team that is poised to compete for years to come. If they actually weren’t restrained by their ownership situation they could make a few aggressive moves that could viably vault them into the upper echelon of teams in the NHL. I don’t believe the league would want to chance having Winnipeg be the centre of the hockey universe over the next couple years by letting the Coyotes move.
During the last 10 years I can point to 2 cases where I believe winning a Stanley Cup saved a Southern market from moving, 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning and 2006 Carolina Hurricanes. In both cases these clubs started the season with the alarm bells sounding with regards to the stability of their franchises. Carolina was a few years removed from a Cinderella Stanley Cup Finals run and had been awful the next 2 seasons. They were having trouble filling their building and I recall the start of rumblings that maybe the team should return back to Hartford where they had moved from in the mid-1990’s. Instead they put together a great season, winning the Southeast division and subsequently the Stanley Cup. This solidified the team in Carolina, rallying the fans around a winner.
This is why the NHL is so adamant about not moving the Coyotes. They think that if that club can win a Stanley Cup in the desert they will be able to anchor long term stability in Phoenix, finally tapping into a loyal following in the region. The reality of the situation is that the Stanley Cup is a powerful pawn and having Canadian clubs win is just a waste from the NHLs perspective. They would much rather see Anaheim, Dallas, Florida, Tampa Bay, Nashville or Phoenix win it than to ever see the Winnipeg Jets hoist the Cup. Winning the Cup in Canada is like preaching to the converted. We’re already hardcore followers of the sport, it’s not like they would ever see a massive spike in new interest if the Senators, Flames or Oilers won.
The NHL has barely put up a struggle with moving the Thrashers because they are perennial losers. Moving them to Winnipeg still requires years of rebuilding before that team can even think of contending for a Cup and the league knows it. Chancing moving a potential winner to Canada, with Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa all in rebuild cycles and Vancouver currently the best in the league could be dangerous. You could viably see multiple Stanley Cup champions come out of Canada over the next 5 years if those rebuilds are executed properly. The way to win in the NHL these days is to bottom out and build through the draft, so if that’s the case the NHL doesn’t want to improve those chances by allowing a stacked young squad move North of the border.