Waddell beyond disappointed for Thrashers

The road to the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg ran from Atlanta, but with a detour in Arizona.
The scene inside the Philips Arena store on May 31, when the Atlanta Thrashers officially relocated to Winnipeg. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

The road to the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg ran from Atlanta, but with a detour in Arizona.

The struggling Phoenix Coyotes were rumoured to be heading back to Winnipeg, where they originally came from, but when the Coyotes were saved (again) in the nick of time for another season, it was Atlanta's days that were numbered.

That's according to team president Don Waddell, who has been with the Thrashers since they were granted a franchise in the mid-1990s.

Atlanta, too, had been looking for a buyer, but their ownership group acted quickly once the Phoenix uncertainty was forestalled.

"When [prospective buyers] called and talked about moving the franchise, that wasn't even an option for us," Waddell said on a media conference call hours after the sale of the Thrashers to Winnipeg was officially announced. "We were trying to find local buyers ... when Phoenix looked like it had fallen apart about six weeks ago, we thought we were off the table for moving this year. [But] obviously the City of Glendale came up with $25 million US to save Phoenix again this year. That was about three weeks ago, and that's when it became a definite possibility that we could be relocated."

Waddell defended the Atlanta Spirit ownership group, saying the development with the Coyotes wasn't a convenient fix, but the inevitable outcome for a Thrashers franchise that couldn't find a local buyer.

He said that since a potential buyer in 2009 backed off due in large part to the internecine lawsuits that the Spirit group were involved with, there hadn't been a lot of heat for the struggling NHL club.

He said that while there were a number of inquiries since that date, only a "handful" came from persons or groups with the resources to buy a franchise, and that ultimately no sufficient local offers came forth.

Bitterness will likely be the predominant emotion from the core group of Thrashers fans, as the Spirit group waxed and waned with their public statements to the press since before the lockout about their intentions with the NHL team.

Waddell said he has experienced the gamut of emotions in recent weeks.

"Being here from Day 1 and having the opportunity to start the franchise and then see it leave, disappointed is an understatement," Waddell said. "This has been our life."

Waddell said he hoped a number of front office and hockey people who are open to moving to Manitoba will be interviewed by Winnipeg's True North Sports & Entertainment Ltd. for positions.

Waddell couldn't estimate the number of local job losses, as he hoped as many people as possible who are staying in Georgia could find employment within the Spirit group, who own the Atlanta Hawks and the arena, among other interests.

The 52-year-old said he won't be heading to Winnipeg. Waddell, who previously worked in Detroit, said he hasn't had time to contemplate his next hockey destination.

The Thrashers made the playoffs just once in their time in Atlanta, getting swept in the first round in 2006 and then suffering a significant drop in points the following season.

"We weren't able to put back-to-back seasons together and that was critical," he said.