Andrew Ladd (16) and his Atlanta Thrashers may be on the move. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
Well, here we go.
For a couple of years now, the National Hockey League has told True North Sports and Entertainment to get everything ready. Get your financing done, have a ticket plan in place, make some changes to your building, etc.
But, the warning was strict: "Don't approach any other owner until we tell you to do so. And we better not see you doing interviews."
Last year, the Phoenix Coyotes were about two days from moving to Winnipeg. Now, according to several sources, Commissioner Gary Bettman has -- for the first time -- given True North permission to close a deal with Atlanta Spirit, the owners of the Thrashers. (Bettman made this move with the approval of the NHL's Executive Committee, meaning the league's most powerful owners agreed with the decision.)
As I wrote last week, I hate the way people in Winnipeg, Atlanta and Phoenix are getting tortured by the relocation rollercoaster. But, it appears in this case as if things are coming to a close in Georgia.
Last week, one of those owners, Bruce Levenson, conducted an astonishing interview with an NBC affiliate
. The key question comes about 1:10 in, where the reporter asks if he will continue to run the team for another year, while looking for prospective buyers.
Levenson replies, "That's a scenario we haven't even thought about."
All parties agree no one wants to see Atlanta Spirit continue as the Thrashers' owners. Levenson clearly doesn't want it, the NHL doesn't want it and, I'm learning very quickly, the Georgia faithful don't want it. Both the league and the fans have been terribly disappointed by the group's performance.
Twice now, I've reported that the Raine Group, which is heading the search for new ownership, told prospective candidates they would be able to move the hockey team. That is true.
"You're half right," one (big) source said.
What I got wrong was stating that meant Atlanta Spirit would keep the NBA Hawks and Philips Arena. (Raine did not respond to two requests for comment.)
In fact, it appears that the Hawks and the Arena will be sold before the Thrashers.
However, the reason the hockey team remains available is that the new ownership (which apparently is local) has no interest in buying it.
That's an enormous problem, because who is going to want to buy the Thrashers without control of the building? Nobody. Renting Philips Arena 50-odd nights a year and banking on sponsorship revenue is not a recipe for success.
That's why Spirit is having so much trouble selling the team. Tom Glavine looked at the possibility. Apparently, so did Steve Stotland, a Montrealer, who poked around the Phoenix Coyotes last season.
The NHL believes it has a pretty ironclad agreement with Atlanta Spirit that will prevent Levenson and company from "walking away" from the team or declaring bankruptcy if there is no sale by next season. But, considering all of the goofiness from this ownership group over the past seven years, the league doesn't want to take the chance something ridiculous happens.
Bettman is getting hammered locally for not standing up for the Thrashers the same way he's fought for Phoenix. But, the two situations are completely different. The Coyotes have a local government bending over for the NHL and a rink that will become a haunted house if the team leaves. There is no city council tossing $25 million US a year at the Thrashers.
Enter True North. Winnipeg may not be the league's preference, but Thomson/Chipman are stable, professional, prepared and enthusiastic, things that are lacking in Georgia.
No doubt the NHL is hoping for a 'Miracle Off Ice' in Atlanta, but it appears unlikely.
Meanwhile, TNSE is closing its $170 million deal ($110 for the team, $60 for relocation). The betting is Winnipeg 2.0 will be called the Manitoba Moose.
The question is: when will the league allow the move?
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