The talk of the NHL right now is not the Stanley Cup finals, which are set to begin on Wednesday. Instead, the focus is squarely on tiny Winnipeg, where the NHL announced on Tuesday that it is returning to after 16 years.
True North Sports and Entertainment and the Atlanta Spirit agreed to a deal early Tuesday that would move the Atlanta Thrashers franchise to Manitoba. The deal is still pending approval by the NHL’s Board of Governors according to commissioner Gary Bettman, which seems like a mere formality at this point.
Bettman seemed a bit reluctant to be back in Winnipeg 16 years later, the same place where he oversaw the uprooting of the Jets franchise to the Phoenix area in 1996. Still, Bettman tried to play the good guy, saying he was happy the NHL was back in Manitoba.
“We are not happy about leaving Atlanta,” Bettman said. “Sometimes, we have no choice.”
Bettman tried his best to sound excited to be back in Winnipeg, however. “We were extraordinarily unhappy when we left back in ’96,” Bettman said.
The Thrashers are the second NHL team to fail in Atlanta, following the footsteps of the Atlanta Flames, which moved to Calgary in 1980. Bettman said that no local buyer emerged for the Spirit to sell the team, allowing True North to step in and snag the Thrashers.
True North chairman Mark Chipman stated that the team does not have a name yet, though the Jets seems to be the nostalgic choice. Chipman also said that the NHL lockout played a big role in bringing NHL hockey back to Winnipeg.
“We couldn’t contemplate a move back to Winnipeg until after the lockout,” Chipman said, a point that Bettman echoed. The 2004 lockout, which wiped out an entire season of play, instituted a league-wide salary cap that has allowed small market teams in Ottawa and Edmonton to survive against big clubs like New York and Detroit.
“The NHL has a different economic system that allows so-called small market teams to survive,” Bettman said, saying the collective bargaining agreement has level the playing surface and that times have changed for Winnipeg as an NHL market. “These are factors that didn’t exist back in ’96.”
Winnipeg will now start a season ticket drive to impress the Board of Governors. Bettman said a goal of 13,000 season tickets would send a “positive message” to the board. “This isn’t going to work real well if this building isn’t sold out every night,” Bettman said, referring to the MTS Centre where the presser was held.
One reporter asked if the move of the Thrashers would give hope to the people of Quebec City, who are itching to return the Nordiques to the city. Bettman shot it down.
“Other communities shouldn’t be reading into what’s happening here,” Bettman said. “People shouldn’t get their hopes up.”
Unfortunately for the Red Wings, they won’t get to move to the Eastern Conference, at least not until the 2012-13 season. The Jets/Moose/Thrashers will play in the East next season as it’s too late to do any rescheduling.
Winnipeg immediately becomes the NHL’s smallest city, with a metro area of less than 700,00 people. A lot of people like to poke fun at Detroit because its population dipped to 713,000 this past census, but the Metro Detroit area still boasts a sizable population of over 4 million people.
It’s a significant downgrade in terms of population from Atlanta. The entire Manitoba province is home to just over 1 million people; the Atlanta market housed a shade under 6 million.