ATLANTA – With Winnipeg’s mayor saying a move was just “a matter of time,” the fate of the Atlanta Thrashers remained uncertain Friday as fans planned a possible last-ditch effort to show support for the NHL team.
A rally was scheduled for Saturday outside Philips Arena in conjunction with a select-a-seat event for current and prospective season-ticket holders, scheduled to go on as planned despite the franchise’s cloudy future.
“We’re going to go have a good time and hang out with our hockey family,” said Lisa Lewis, president of the Thrashers fan club. “If it’s our last time, well, at least we get that chance.”
There was no way of knowing if a strong turnout would have any impact on reported negotiations between the Thrashers ownership and Winnipeg-based True North Sports and Entertainment, though NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on his weekly radio show that “it will be interesting to see how many people show up.”
A Facebook page named “Keep the Thrashers in Atlanta” urged fans to turned up at the noontime rally, which will be held in a gritty parking area known as “The Gulch.”
“Bring everyone you know! Even if they just want to party with people! We need a HUGE crowd! KEEP OUR THRASHERS IN ATLANTA!!” the organizer of the page wrote.
Lewis said she expected several hundred fans to show up.
“People need to get in there and take the long shot,” she said. “Don’t sit back and say, ‘Oh, they’re leaving,’ and not take the leap of faith. Let’s at least get together one last time and show them, ‘Hey, there are fans here in Atlanta. They’re still showing up to support their team.'”
Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said Friday a deal to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg was inevitable. The Canadian city lost its NHL team in 1996 when the Jets moved to Phoenix and were renamed the Coyotes.
It looked as though the Coyotes, now owned by the league because of financial troubles, might be moving back to Winnipeg. But last week, officials in suburban Glendale, Ariz., agreed to a US$25 million subsidy for the upcoming season, saving the Coyotes while they try to finalize new ownership.
That turned the focus to the Thrashers.
“I do believe this will happen and it’s long overdue,” Katz said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “The Jets never should have left here . . . After 15 years, we’ll all be ecstatic to have them back. There is no doubt that the fan base is there. The corporate support is there.”
The Thrashers owners, known as Atlanta Spirit, claim $130 million in losses since 2005 and have made it clear they no longer want the NHL team, which has made the playoffs only once in 11 seasons and ranked 28th out of 30 teams in attendance this year. While the preference is to find new ownership that would keep the team in Atlanta, no one has come forward with a legitimate offer.
“Nothing new,” co-owner Bruce Levenson said Friday in an email to The Associated Press.
NHL officials also were tightlipped.
“No concrete developments at this point,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email to the AP. “Won’t comment on likelihood or things that might flow from agreement unless or until its reached.”
True North reportedly is willing to pay $110 million for the team and another $60 million to the league as a relocation fee. Lewis said talk of a possible move “came out of left field.”
“I feel like they didn’t take the proper amount of time to really find a local buyer,” she said. “They really haven’t put in a good-faith effort for the fans here. They’re taking the first offer and running with it.”
Lewis, who hasn’t missed a game in five years, said attendance would’ve been much better if the Thrashers had managed more than one winning season.
“When you don’t put a winning product on the ice, when you don’t see a heartfelt effort on the ice, then people don’t want to be there,” she said. “It may be fun to go watch, but it kind of brings you down. It really does.”
AP Hockey Writer Ira Podell contributed to this report.