Back in the mid-2000s, you could make a pretty good case that it would be a good idea for the NHL to move the franchises in Washington, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. While it could be argued the Blackhawks had too much history to be moved, the franchise had struggled for years under the tyrannical ownership of a man who wouldn’t even broadcast his team’s games locally. The Caps were struggling and going through a rebuilding phase before bottoming out in 2003-04. The Penguins were saved by a miracle stadium initiative. All three teams were suffering terribly, not just at the box office, but in relevancy. And now they’re three of the league’s “showcase” franchises. This is what mismanagement can do to a hockey team.
Rumored to be moving any day now to Winnipeg, the Atlanta Thrashers aren’t doing poorly where they are because the fans don’t like hockey. Atlanta is doing poorly because they’ve been incredibly mismanaged since the day the franchise was founded. They drafted this guy with their very first draft pick. They traded Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik, and made us think for a few minutes that Paul Holmgren was actually smart. They’ve played in exactly one playoff series in 12 years, and were swept in four games by the Rangers. Their franchise player went to New Jersey for a bag of beans, and Dany Heatley left under horrifying circumstances. Their ownership is a mess. People didn’t want to go see a loser in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and D.C. in the early 2000s. Why would they want to go see one in Atlanta?
I think a lot of the desire among some fans for hockey to return to places like Winnipeg, Hartford, and Quebec has to do with misplaced nostalgia for the early 1990s, when in reality, no one batted an eye when each team was moved, especially in the case of the Whalers. Quebec is a tiny market (the only market in North America smaller is Green Bay), and we’re all overlooking the fact that the Canadian teams moved in the first place because the Canadian dollar took a Joe Thornton-esque dive.
All three teams had been terrible for years before they moved, although the Nords were on the verge. We loved playing as these teams in NHL 94, so naturally, the league was better when all three were there. We’re overlooking the fact that MTS Centre would be the smallest arena in the NHL (holding just over 15,000 – the next smallest is Nassau Coliseum, which the NHL and Isles have been trying to flee for years, and holds about 16,000). And even though Edmonton has trouble keeping free agents, I’m sure they’ll love to come to a place like Winnipeg. This does not augur well for the prospects of a team in Manitoba.
I think hockey can work in Atlanta, because it’s working in other markets where hockey isn’t “traditional”. The key, as always, is to win. When the Thrashers start to do that, the fans will come.