Thursday, May 19, 2011

Going Back to Winny, Winny, Winny

winnipeg jets
After years of trouble in Phoenix, accompanied by constant rumours of relocation, Winnipeg will finally get an NHL team back, although it isn’t the one they were expecting. According to reports, True North Sports – the group which owns and operates the Manitoba Moose and the MTS Centre – are close to completing a deal for the Atlanta Thrashers, which would subsequently be moved to Winnipeg. In fact, the highly reputable Stephen Brunt is reporting that the deal is done. As in complete. Brunt indicates the league will announce the deal on Tuesday. TSN and CBC are both reporting the deal is close – but not done. Regardless, it appears like a matter of when, not if the Thrashers move.

In contrast to the long, drawn out battle to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, the Atlanta Thrashers are seemingly being sold and moved overnight. Of course Atlanta’s attendance issues are well documented, but their relocation possibility did not seem imminent. For the past two years I have felt like Phoenix could move any day. Relatively, it seems like the instant I hear the Thrashers could move, they are.

I can’t help but feel for Atlanta a bit. Don’t think I’ve gone soft on southern expansion. I haven’t. I still think there are at least four southern teams too many. However, I feel for the fans. We joke about empty arenas, but there are people who love hockey in Atlanta. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough of them.

I don’t personally know how it feels to have a team taken from me. But it must be a horrible thing. The closest experience I have is the Montreal Expos. The Expos aren’t my team. I was born in Toronto and my allegiance lies with the Blue Jays. But when there are only two teams in the entire league that reside in your country, you’re going to develop an affinity for both.

Canada views Atlanta as an odd choice for hockey, but America probably viewed Montreal similarly. Baseball is America’s national pastime, no one showed up to the games, and English wasn't even the primary language. Montreal may as well have been Mexico. Of course it didn’t help that Olympic Stadium was a concrete dungeon placed in a less than ideal location.

The 1994 strike effectively killed baseball in Montreal. The Expos had the best team in the league that season; the roster was full of young stars like Larry Walker, Moises Alou, and Pedro Martinez. They seemed poised to not only make the playoffs, but contend for the World Series. The strike stopped that and we'll never know if the momentum from a playoff run and potential World Series would have awakened Montreal's love for baseball, thus saving the team.

My Dad grew up in Montreal and was a devout Expos fan. The Expos relocated to Washington over six years ago and were a sad-sack franchise for years before that, yet, sadly, my Dad told me that every morning he still checks the Washington Nationals' boxscore. Sports do something funny to people. They shouldn’t mean this much, but they do. Maybe there are a few people in Atlanta who will religiously check Winnipeg boxscores and feel the same empty feeling. It’s not something I wish on anybody.

It must also be frustrating to know that the league has spent so much time defending the right for hockey to exist in Phoenix, yet they ostensibly are letting the Thrashers leave without any hesitation. This is one of the main reasons why many Canadian fans hate Gary Bettman. He has relentlessly fought for the Coyotes, but made little effort to save either the Nordiques or the Jets during the mid-90s.

Realistically, the situations in Atlanta and Phoenix are vastly different. In Phoenix, the city is willing to spend millions of dollars to keep the team; plus, there is actually an owner willing to support the team (albeit with complex legal issues). Additionally, arena would become deserted if the Coyotes left, which would have a terrible impact on the businesses surrounding it. Nothing comparable is happening in Atlanta.

Plus, this was Atlanta’s second chance at hockey. Why the NHL went back to an untraditional market after it failed the first time is questionable. The league seems prepared to give Winnipeg another chance, but at least it’s evident that a large group of people are desperate for hockey and will actually support it.

I feel bad for the few passionate Atlanta Thrasher fans, but at least we’ll never have to see those atrocious jerseys again.

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