ATLANTA – The Thrashers and the NHL insist they’re still focused on keeping the financially troubled team in Atlanta, despite persistent reports that it’s on the verge of moving to Winnipeg.
The franchise’s plight took on new urgency this week when officials in Glendale, Ariz., voted to subsidize the Phoenix Coyotes for another year while that team tries to complete a deal with a new owner.
Bruce Levenson, part of the ownership group that controls the Thrashers, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and operating rights to Philips Arena, said Mayor Kasim Reed is assisting in the effort to keep the team in Atlanta.
“We are still trying to find someone to buy the team and keep them in” Atlanta, Levenson wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Nobody has pushed forward with an offer.”
Reed’s office did not respond to requests for comment Friday. The mayor’s spokesman, Reese McCranie, acknowledged to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Thrashers are “having difficulty and they may leave.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly downplayed all the speculation about Atlanta’s future, though no one has guaranteed the Thrashers will be staying put next season.
“What I can say with certainty is that the Thrashers have neither been sold nor relocated,” he told the AP on Friday. “Efforts to sell and stabilize the franchise remain ongoing—as they have for a number of years. Not much I can say about rumours.”
Commissioner Gary Bettman was even more adamant on his weekly radio show.
“I think everybody needs to take a step back because I think there’s been a fair amount of speculation, supposition and even hysteria in the media, which has been largely fabricated,” Bettman said, according to NHL.com. “I wish I had a dollar for all of the reports a month ago that said the Coyotes were definitely moving, and it was going to happen in a matter of days.
“I mean, people who are reporting on this stuff are simply making it up, and that’s unfortunate for our fans. It’s unfortunate for the fans who have a club they don’t want to lose, and it’s unfortunate for building up expectations in other places.”
A Winnipeg investment group, True North, has made it clear it wants to bring NHL hockey back to the Canadian city. The Jets moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996 because of financial problems, but the city has since built a new arena.
The Thrashers’ owners acknowledged in court documents that they have been looking to sell the team for years, but those efforts were complicated by a long running dispute with former co-owner Steve Belkin. That dispute was finally settled in December.
The team’s financial troubles have translated to a poor showing on the ice. Atlanta has missed the playoffs in 10 of its 11 seasons, and attendance this year dipped to 13,469 per game—28th out of 30 teams.
If the Thrashers were to leave, Atlanta would become the first city in the NHL’s modern era to lose two franchise. The Flames moved to Calgary in 1980 after eight seasons in the Deep South.
AP Hockey Writer Ira Podell in New York and AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Atlanta contributed to this report.