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NHL to Announce Phoenix Coyotes Will Stay in Arizona: An Atlanta Perspective

Today it was reported that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was in Arizona to announce that the Phoenix Coyotes have (tentatively) been sold, and will remain in Arizona.  The new ownership group, who’s members have not yet been confirmed, is said to be led by former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison.  For those of you who have read my columns for any amount of time,  you know what’s about to follow.  The Coyotes – previously the Winnipeg Jets, who moved to Phoenix in 1996 – get to stay in their cozy southwestern home, meanwhile Bettman and the NHL left Atlanta hockey fans’ cheese hanging in the cold wind.

The NHL has owned and operated the Coyotes since former owner Jerry Moyes put the franchise in bankruptcy in 2009.  At that time, investor Jim Balsillie made an offer to purchase and move the team to Canada. But the league intervened and took control, and has been working with the City of Glendale to keep the Coyotes in Arizona, with the city paying up to $25 million a year to cover the team’s losses.  Sounds all well and good for the folks in Arizona.  But what about Atlanta?  You say you don’t think Atlanta has anything to do with this.  Think again.

After the 2011 season, the Atlanta Spirit, LLC – owners of the then Atlanta Thrashers – decided that the fiscal weight of the hockey franchise was too much for their so-called group to bear, and they announced their intention to sell the team.  On May 16th of that year,  it was reported that talks for a sale of the Thrashers to a Winnipeg, Manitoba based company known as True North Sports and Entertainment had begun.  Four days later it was reported that a deal had been finalized to move the team to Winnipeg.  Of course, the league denied the report, but did acknowledge that some negotiations between the two sides had been underway and that the move was supported by commissioner Bettman. On May 31st, just 15 days after the first report of any negotiations, the NHL and True North Sports held a press conference to announce the completion of a deal to purchase the Thrashers and relocate the team to Winnipeg.

The collective heads of Atlanta hockey fans were spinning.  Although rumors had been surfacing for a couple of years about a possible sale or relocation of the team, nothing had ever been formally announced.  Just a few short years before all this occurred majority owner Michael Gearon stood in front of a packed house at Philips Arena during the raising of the first (and only) division championship banner, and told Thrasher fans that the owners were in this for the long haul and had every intention of bringing a Stanley Cup to Atlanta.

In 2009, Thrashers president and former general manager Don Waddell stated unequivocally,  “In countless meetings with ownership, never once have we expressed any interest in selling the Thrashers or moving the Thrashers.”  Then, in February of 2011, Gearon said that the team was “seeking new investors”, but made no mention of the fact that the group’s intentions were to completely liquidate the franchise to new owners.  Before any type of movement could even begin in Atlanta to give support to the team and protest a possible sale, the deal was signed, sealed, delivered and subsequently blessed by the league’s commissioner.

Keep in mind, Gary Bettman’s league owned a team that had been in bankruptcy, and was costing American taxpayers up to $25 million a year to keep in operation.  Yet he supported the move of another team who basically just had unhappy and unstable ownership, and who didn’t want to lose any more of their own personal money.  Forget for a moment about the on-ice struggles of the Thrashers and the dwindling fan support because of a substandard product being put on the ice year after year.  It was in the league’s best interest, both fiscally and ethically, to handle the business of the team they owned – and that was burdening American taxpayers – before any other moves or sales were considered. Why was the league not bargaining with True North Sports on a deal for the Coyotes?

So Winnipeg got their Jets back (again), and Arizona gets to keep their hockey club, even though their success there has been marginal at best.  Meanwhile, hockey fans in Atlanta are left standing out in the cold, wondering what happened, and how it happened so quickly.  The scary part for Atlanta is, this ownership group still owns and controls the city’s NBA Atlanta Hawks…for now.  But when and if the sale of the Coyotes is finalized, it will close the book on a sleazy and slimy chapter of the NHL under Bettman, and will be the last dagger in the hearts of hockey fans in Atlanta.