Atlanta in midst of another hockey death watch

Associated Press
Tony Tlusty, of Prague, Czech Republic, shops in the team store in Philip's Arena, home of the Atlanta Thrashers NHL hockey team Friday, May 20, 2011 in Atlanta. According to reports in Atlanta and Winnipeg, Thrashers owners are in negotiations with True North Sports and Entertainment, which would relocate the team to Winnipeg. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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The NHL gave Atlanta a mulligan, a do-over, a shot at hockey redemption.

Too bad the Thrashers never had much of a chance.

With the embattled ownership negotiating a sale that could send another Atlanta team north of the border, the city's hockey fans find themselves in the midst of a death watch, waiting out an announcement that appears inevitable but planning a rally Saturday and longing for someone to step in at the last minute to save the Thrashers from the same fate as the Flames in 1980.

"I hope it doesn't happen," said former Flames goalie Dan Bouchard, who still lives in Atlanta. "But from everything I hear, it's a done deal."

A Toronto newspaper reported an agreement has been reached to move the team to Winnipeg, and that city's mayor says it's just "a matter of time." Team officials and the NHL insist nothing is official yet, but hockey fans in this sprawling metropolitan area of more than 5 million people can't help but wonder how it all went wrong.

Again.

The easy thing to point to is the attendance. The Thrashers ranked 28th out of 30 teams this season, averaging 13,469 per game, and even that number appears heavily padded. For instance, a reporter counted less than 1,000 people sitting in the upper deck for a weekday game in early March against Ottawa.

But simply blaming the team's plight on a lack of fan support obscures the deeper problems: a squabbling ownership group that wanted to dump the franchise almost from the moment it bought it, a payroll that ranks near the bottom of the league, a perennially losing team that hasn't won a playoff game in 11 seasons.

"They want to blame the fans," Bouchard told The Associated Press on Friday. "It has nothing to do with fans. It has to do with the ownership. The ownership is terrible."

The seeds of the Thrashers' woes were planted shortly after the puck dropped for the first time in 1999, while fans were still giddy over the return of the NHL and packing Philips Arena with one sellout after another. Just months into the inaugural season, corporate owner Time Warner (which bought the expansion franchise at the behest of one of its top executives, Ted Turner) merged with AOL. Turner left soon after, the deal was a financial disaster, and the debt-ridden company was forced to shed the Thrashers and its two other Atlanta teams, baseball's Braves and the NBA's Hawks.

In 2004, a disparate group of businessmen known as the Atlanta Spirit purchased the Hawks, Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena for $250 million. Before long, the owners have acknowledged in court documents, they began making plans to sell off the NHL team, hoping to capitalize on a new labor agreement reached after the 2004-05 season was canceled.

But the Spirit wasn't actually in position to pull off the sale because of a contentious legal battle with one of its partners, Boston-based Steve Belkin. That dispute was finally settled this past December when Belkin was bought out by the other owners, a necessary step for completing any sale of the Thrashers.

So, actually, the team has been on the market for less than six months, though the owners claim they've been trying to land new investors for the past two years without success. And, with the team apparently on the verge of moving, there's no indication of anyone making a serious offer to save the Thrashers.

"The key to this may be, in the final analysis, whether or not somebody wants to own the team in Atlanta," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

As with the attendance issues, it's more complex than that.

If someone bought only the Thrashers, the team would become a tenant at Philips Arena and likely collect a much smaller share of lucrative perks such as parking, concessions and luxury box revenue. Why do you think there are two major arenas in the Miami area: one for the NBA's Heat, another for the NHL's Florida Panthers? They opened a year apart, largely because of different owners who wanted to control the building where their teams played.

Saddled with owners who didn't really want them, the Thrashers became an afterthought. When the Hawks faced the loss of star player Joe Johnson, the Spirit signed off on a new $123 million contract. The Thrashers, on the other hand, continually lost or traded away stars anytime they came up for a lucrative deal.

Marc Savard, gone. Marian Hossa, gone. Ilya Kovalchuk, gone.

Since entering the league, the Thrashers have perennially ranked near the bottom of the league in player salaries. This season, according to www.nhlnumbers.com, the payroll of $46.6 million was lower than all but two teams — and more than $17 million below the cap.

While a hefty payroll is not a guarantee of success, it sure helps. The Thrashers had their only winning season and lone playoff appearance in 2007. They were swept by the New York Rangers, and haven't really come close to getting back to the postseason.

To recap, that's 11 seasons, zero playoff wins.

"There are thousands of people in this city who love hockey," Bouchard said. "But you know what? They can't justify spending their money on very expensive tickets to go see a loser."

Bouchard has seen it all before. He played for the Flames all eight years they were in Atlanta, and he still chafes at those who say the city can't support a hockey team.

In reality, the Flames averaged 12,031 during their eight-year run — roughly 80 percent of capacity at the old Omni, a respectable figure in the 1970s and nearly double the Hawks' attendance (6,229) during the same span.

Not that it mattered. The Hawks are still here. The Flames are in Calgary.

If the Thrashers follow the Flames' lead, Atlanta will become the first two-time loser in the NHL's modern era.

Don't expect a third chance anytime soon.

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Paul Newberry can be reached at http://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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