It's official, the Atlanta Thrashers are about to become the Winnipeg Jets/Moose/Bears/Appropriate Northern-Themed Name. The move has delighted thousands of people in the province of Manitoba and shattered the hopes of a few in Georgia. It's also sparked a debate about where the hell this new team is going to play.
Two weeks ago, I gave you my thoughts on how the NHL should realign itself. Personally, as a Red Wings fan I obviously want the team to move back to the Eastern Conference and rekindle old rivalries with Boston, Montreal and Toronto, burying those god-awful 10:30 p.m. start times forever.
Detroit's case for a move east is just as good as anyone's: they're one of only two teams from the Eastern Time Zone playing in the Western Conference, they have a storied history and rivalries with several Eastern Conference foes. They could also start a few new rivalries, with possible yearly playoff battles with Pittsburgh, Carolina, Philadelphia and Washington, teams they defeated for their most recent Stanley Cup championships.
However, other teams are also knocking on the Eastern Conference's front door.
Nashville and Columbus would both love to move east. Columbus is struggling in the Western Conference and is being rumored as a possible relocation candidate in the future. They, along with Detroit, are the other team operating on Eastern Time that plays the majority of its games out west. Nashville could move into the Southeast where Atlanta currently resides (or resided) and develop rivalries with its southern compatriots.
It's not that the argument for the Predators or Blue Jackets moving east is bad. They both have compelling cases. It's the argument against Detroit moving east that boggles the mind.
The main argument against Detroit moving east is twofold: their popularity nationwide and their rivalry with the Chicago Blackhawks. If the Red Wings were to move east, it would be the only major sport in North America where the two play in separate conferences. Detroit playing Chicago for conference and division titles is just as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July. Or so I'm told.
That is a legitimate concern. The Detroit-Chicago dislike for one another is good for sports and TV ratings. It's the other part that I can't wrap my head around.
Whenever realignment is mentioned, the topic that repeatedly comes up is that the Western Conference governors would never allow the Red Wings to move back to the East because Detroit's road drawing power is so strong. It's for that reason that many believe Detroit will not be getting the call from Gary Bettman that they're rejoining their old friends because attendance in the West would drop significantly.
ESPN's Pierre Lebrun feels that Detroit is the obvious move to the Eastern Conference, but he as well feels the Western Conference's gripe may cost them:
The Red Wings desperately want to move east. They're tired of playing most of their games outside of their time zone, and it's brutal for TV ratings when you're asking your fans to stay up late to watch most of your road games. Having said that, many Western Conference governors will oppose losing Detroit because of the Wings' gate power.
It is indeed true that the Red Wings are a big road draw. In fact, they were the biggest road draw in the league last year, averaging over 18,000 fans a game on the road. The Phoenix Coyotes drew 12,990 fans for their home opener against Boston—whose fan base is not too shabby itself—which is about 75 percent capacity. Six days later when the Red Wings came to town for Phoenix's next home game the place was sold out. And just to clarify, both games were on the weekend. When the Red Wings came back in March, 17,382 fans showed up—252 more than official capacity.
(Note: It has been pointed out to me that the Coyotes game that drew 12,990 people was actually played in Prague, Czech Republic. The Coyotes indeed opened their own arena against the Red Wings to a sold out crowd, then proceeded to draw a mere 6,706 fans their next game against Los Angeles. On their next weekend game, they drew 8,189 people against Carolina. My point about the Wings' drawing power remains.
Note 2: The O2 Arena in Prague where the game was held seats just over 17,300 people, so even the Czechs weren't too impressed).
But one thing you have to keep in mind is that the situation in Phoenix is unique. Several Western Conference teams sold out their arenas on a nightly basis, regardless of who was in town. Chicago, San Jose, Calgary, Vancouver, St. Louis and Edmonton each sold out every home game—and Edmonton was atrocious this year. Los Angeles, Minnesota and Nashville all were at least 94 percent capacity. Three of those teams mentioned (Minnesota, St. Louis and Edmonton) didn't even make the playoffs.
Teams in San Jose, Los Angeles, Carolina and other non-traditional markets have figured this out. It's time others joined the club. If fans are showing up to games only because Detroit is in town, then I think you should seriously reconsider the way you're running your franchise.