Friday, May 20, 2011

The Sunbelt Manifesto

If you follow me on twitter, you well know that I have long supported a NHL team in Winnipeg. I'd support one in Quebec City and Hartford too. I didn't however, support the Coyotes moving to Winnipeg. Why? Simply because, as I wrote before, the backroom deal to move the team out of Phoenix is why the NHL is involved in the first place, and they are trying to finish what they started. In Atlanta, none of that applies. The new owners apparently never wanted the hockey team in the first place. Combine that with one playoff appearance in franchise history, and no wins to boot, it was not a recipe for success.  But, this is by no means telling of the other southern NHL franchises. In fact, it's more a referendum on bad ownership destroying a team before the success could begin.

What are the root causes for a team to move? Stadium issues usually come first, then it's stable ownership. Almost as quickly as Atlanta Spirit bought the Thrashers, the owners became embroiled in a court case that dragged on until recently. Not every owner of a Southern NHL team is ASG, Jerry Moyes, or even Alan Cohen. Look at how Disney built up the Ducks, how the Gunds built up the Sharks, and how Peter Karmanos built up the Hurricanes. The Thrashers never had an owner willing to build them up. Heck, Wayne Huizenga at least tried to build up the Panthers. Good ownership is required to build up a team to a point where they are the fixture. Just ask Seattle.

On the hockey side, it doesn't help out the Thrashers cause when the team made the playoffs once. All of the other "Sunbelt" teams have either made the playoffs on a consistent basis, or made the Stanley Cup at least once. Winning draws fans, no matter what market you're in, much to the chagrin of die-hards. Atlanta had no reason to ever go to Thrashers games in droves. When they started, the Braves were still winning NL East pennant after pennant, the Falcons had just made the Super Bowl, and the Hawks were consistently in the playoffs. And even when one team fell from grace, another took their place. In the other markets, the team is either the only winning game in town, or the only one in town. I won't go into individual histories, but you'll soon see what I mean.

It stinks that Atlanta has lost 2 hockey teams to a fate of low revenues and fan support, but this one here is not Atlanta's fault. They did all they had to do to get a team in the first place, and they had no part in the terrible ownership that followed. This isn't like when the Sonics or Browns left, as they were civic institutions. Sure other teams are in financial holes like Columbus, St. Louis and Florida, but their ownership is either committed or the team has some means of sustaining an arena or area.

If a team is winning and no one is showing up, that is a serious problem. The Thrashers never had that problem. The Ducks, Hurricanes, and Lightning never had this problem when they won cups, and even if they did, the ownership said that the team wasn't going anywhere.

Don't use Atlanta as a means to say that the Panthers or Coyotes or even the Blue Jackets are next. You never know what goes on behind the scenes, but Atlanta is different. There need not be comparisons.

The Sunbelt Manifesto is: Don't let the issues of one, tell you about how other strugglers are doing. It just isn't right.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Eastward Expansion?

If the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg, and let's be honest, every day it seems more and more likely, how does the NHL restructure conferences and divisions? One team would move from the West to the East, but which one? And how do you maintain rivalries and keep competitive balance? Well, here are my thoughts:

Scenario #1: CBJ to the East

This scenario is plausible, but the matter of bumping someone to the Southeast division is an issue. Columbus and Pittsburgh have developed a nice rivalry, and you can't break the 3 New York teams up. That leaves the Flyers, who will definitely not move divisions. So, do you move Columbus to the NE? I doubt that. Based on logistics, this seems like the least possible scenario. But, here are my thoughts anyway:

Pacific: LA, ANA, SJ, DAL, PHX
Central: MIN, CHI, STL, NSH, DET
Atlantic: NYR, NYI, NJ, CBJ, PIT

Likelihood: Doubtful

Scenario #2 DET to the East

Detroit has wanted to move East for quite some time, and they do have first priority if they do want to move. But, the problems posed by Columbus moving are the same here. Who would fill the open spot in the SE division? It wouldn't be Detroit, and the PA teams are inseparable, mostly. The easiest scenario to envision would be exactly the same as the Columbus scenario... but with Detroit in the Blue Jacket's place. If you could think of another scenario, tell me.

Likelihood: Possible

Scenario #3 NSH to the East

This makes the most sense geographically, since Nashville is a short hop to Carolina, more so than any other scenario. Nashville may lose money from the rivalries lost with Detroit and Chicago, but they could make that money back quickly based on less travel. This scenario seems the most feasible... and likely because of that.

Likelihood: Most likely

Of course, this is all dependent on the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg, and that hasn't happened yet. But, you have to be prepared in case it does.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The $25 Million Question

Even though that total may be much higher than $25 million now, the question still holds the same grout: Why Phoenix? Or better yet... Why Glendale? The Phoenix Coyotes have been owned by the NHL for nearly 2 years now, and more problems concerning the sale of the team keep cropping up... and 2 years after the mess started, we're still in it. With the mounting desire of ownership in Atlanta to sell and get out, and the ownership saga in Dallas, the question raised is: Why is the NHL so steadfast about Phoenix, and not Atlanta or Dallas?

Its root cause may be ownership problems from 4 years ago. Jim Balsillie went after the Penguins and failed, and then he went after the Predators and failed. So naturally, he thought the third time was the charm and went after Phoenix. The problem was... the NHL had sniffed out his ticket sale plan in Hamilton before the Preds were sold, so they were suspicious. With the backroom bankruptcy of the team, the NHL had to swoop in. The situation mounted, and with one failed ownership attempt and possibly a second on the way, we are now in the daily hurricane of Coyotes to Winnipeg rumors. With the Glendale city council planning essentially one year stays with the debt payments to the NHL, many have termed the Coyotes tenure in Phoenix toast. But everytime it looks bleak, they get a favor from Glendale, and they stay.

In Atlanta, the franchise was not thrown into a ridiculous bankruptcy case, although the ownership group did go through some pretty marked troubles in court. But then, Atlanta Spirit wanted to keep the team, and the NHL backed off. Now, they want out and there is no apparent ownership group willing to step up to keep the team in Atlanta -- the Balkan doesn't count-- and the NHL has to act. But with their preoccupation in Phoenix, there is no time to put Atlanta to the forefront. Or even Dallas for that matter, with the saga involving Tom Hicks.

It doesn't look like the Stars are going anywhere, and if the vote in Glendale city council approves the $25 million to pay the NHL, the Coyotes aren't going anywhere either. If that vote goes through, the Thrashers could be on the fast track to Winnipeg, and with the relocation fees paid, the NHL is back to business with the Coyotes. If the Thrashers do leave, many will wonder why they were not "saved" by the NHL. Well...

Maybe the NHL didn't want to make the same mistake twice. Maybe because of the quicksand nature of the Coyotes situation, the NHL couldn't get out fast enough to save the Thrashers. Or, it could be that Gary Bettman just hates Canada... yeah right.

The cases are completely unique and different, and comparison does no good for anyone. However it ends up, the Coyotes saga was something the NHL had to deal with, and the Thrashers situation was less pressing and less public.

Why Phoenix? The NHL had no choice.