ATLANTA – First, the Flames. Now, the Thrashers.
The struggling NHL franchise was sold Tuesday to a group that will move it to Winnipeg next season, making Atlanta the first city in the league’s modern era to lose two teams.
The Flames left for Calgary in 1980. The Thrashers are following them to Canada three decades later.
“I want to thank all the Thrashers fans that supported us in Atlanta for my two years there. Very unfortunate there will be no NHL hockey,” tweeted Evander Kane, one of the team’s most promising young players. “I will miss the great people and city of Atlanta.”
In Atlanta, there was little reaction other than a tearful news conference held by co-owner Michael Gearon. He said the group that controlled the Thrashers and currently holds the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and operating rights to Philips Arena did all it could to find someone who would help keep the financially ailing team in the city.
No one made a serious offer.
“I’ve been focused on trying to avoid this day,” said Gearon, who was glassy eyed and broke down several times as he met with a small group of media at Philips Arena. “I spent time with possible investors going back four years ago, because I was concerned this day would come. I made a desperate plea in February. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to any real prospects. To be sitting here today is just awful for me.”
On the city’s sports-talk stations, there was more discussion about college football and the scandal that cost Ohio State coach Jim Tressel his job than losing an NHL team that, at best, attracted a niche audience.
The Thrashers made only one playoff appearance in 11 seasons and never won a post-season game. The ownership was plagued by financial problems and attendance became a major issue in recent years. The Thrashers averaged less than 14,000 a game this season, ranking 28th out of 30 teams.
Meanwhile Tuesday, the Thrashers’ training complex in suburban Duluth was locked up and no one answered the door. Many employees were undoubtedly freshening up their resumes, knowing they won’t be going with the team to Winnipeg.
Next door, a half-dozen customers ate lunch at the Breakaway Grill, which overlooks the rink where the team practised and plans to remain open.
“Luckily we’re named the Breakaway Grill. We’re not named the Thrashers Nest or anything like that,” said Rhashida Chandler, who works as a bartender and server. “It’ll be an adjustment. We’ll be here for lunches. We’re lucky we have a strong youth hockey program and a men’s league program that keeps us here usually ’til 2 a.m.”
She said the economic crisis and years of losing made it difficult for the franchise to succeed in a city that has three other major-league franchises, two minor-league teams and a strong tradition in college sports that revolves around Georgia and Georgia Tech.
Chandler pointed to the 2005 trade that sent Dany Heatley to Ottawa as a turning point. The Thrashers planned to build around their young star, but he asked to be dealt after being blamed for a car crash that killed teammate Dan Snyder.
“I just wish they could’ve been more successful as a team,” Chandler said. “It’s been a downslope since Heatley left, really.”
In Atlanta, where the financially strapped city government is dealing with possible layoffs, there was never any consideration of bailing out the hockey team.
Gearon and the rest of the Atlanta Spirit owners came under heavy criticism for the way they ran the Thrashers, especially when it was revealed in court documents they were looking to sell the team almost as soon as they acquired it in 2004.
They claim to have lost US$130 million since taking over the franchise—including $20 million in 2006-07, Gearon said, the year the Thrashers won the Southeast Division and made the playoffs with the only winning record in franchise history. They were swept in four straight games by the New York Rangers.
This season, the Thrashers were in contention for a playoff spot but faded down the stretch.
Now, they’ll be playing in a new city.
Efforts to sell the Thrashers locally or bring in new investors were hampered by a long-running dispute within the ownership group. A settlement was finally reached in December to buy out Boston-based Steve Belkin, who had broken with other owners in 2005 after he objected to the signing of Hawks star Joe Johnson.
Also, any potential owner would have become a tenant at Philips Arena, a major impediment because it would cut into much-needed revenue from sources such as concessions, parking, luxury suites and other events.
While Thrashers president Don Waddell had said last week that someone could still jump in to buy the team—at a reduced price—until the Winnipeg sale was approved by the league, Gearon seemed unsure if there was even a bailout clause in the deal.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
Associated Press Writer George Henry in Duluth, Ga., and AP freelance writer Kevin Woodley in Vancouver contributed to this report.