The most passionate fans waited 10 long years for it. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait that long. But the echoes of that amazing night in April of 2007 still haunt my memory four years later. The memories from that day, that night, will forever be etched in my mind and cherished in my soul until my last moments of breath on this earth. I can still hear the chants and the cheers in my mind, building and building into a thundering crescendo of emotion and anticipation, ten minutes before the puck was first dropped into the center ice circle dot…”LET’S GO THRASHERS!! LET’S GO THRASHERS!!” I get emotional now just thinking about it; I can still feel the excitement and the pride I felt that day, a day in which my emotions were humming like a high-performance engine. Today, I still feel those emotions deep in the fiber of my bones, in the sinew of my being, and when I think back, I can feel them again tingling down my spine.
Yes Commissioner Bettman, I feel this way about the Atlanta Thrashers, perhaps the most forgotten and forsaken sports franchise of recent memory. I certainly don’t need to remind you of the franchise’s struggles over the course of more than a decade in which its fans have had to endure chronic mismanagement by its owners, unfulfilled expectations, empty promises and the revelation – via public court documents – that the Thrashers were in fact never wanted from the start. Since 2003, when Ted Turner flipped the Hawks, Thrashers and Philips Arena for an easy profit to a syndicate network of disjointed interests and motives, the Thrashers have been an unmitigated financial disaster. But like most things that invoke bad karma from an inauspicious and perhaps even fraudulent beginning – referring to the underhanded and deceitful tactics used to cheat David McDavid out of an opportunity to purchase all three entities – the history of the Atlanta Thrashers has been laced with half-truths, legal wrangling and back-stabbing “power-plays” for control. In 2003, Turner Broadcasting paid a steep price for such a display of duplicity when a jury determined they should fork over $316M for “disregarding a verbal deal and…essentially breaking a promise” they had made to Mr. McDavid.
Now, two and a half years since a jury ruled in favor of McDavid, the loyal and passionate fans of the Atlanta Thrashers are facing a similar situation, a situation that may render a tragically unfair outcome in which the Thrashers are sold again in a duplicitous and deceitful manner. The fans and city of Atlanta do not deserve the kind of fate that is currently rumored to have been all but signed and notarized into history. Just weeks ago Mr. Bettman, you were quoted in the press about a “covenant with our fans” that you feel the NHL must honor even in the face of rampant speculation and rumor. And when pressed about rumors of the Phoenix Coyotes being sold to TNSE and relocated to Winnipeg, you said “I’m not sure why these stories are starting, but I’m not going to weigh in on something that is purely speculative and made up.” Here in Atlanta, we are now getting bombarded with reports — citing anonymous league officials or “sources close to the situation” – spelling out a nearly finished deal in which the Atlanta Thrashers would be sold to David Thomson’s group in Winnipeg for relocation to a market that is merely 1/7 the size of Atlanta’s metropolitan population.
I certainly won’t try to lecture you on the economics of the NHL and how such a decision seems to fly straight in the face of conventional wisdom, especially now on the heels of the lucrative $2B national TV deal you struck with Comcast / NBC, but the thought of the Thrashers being used to coax “ransom money” from would-be franchise kidnappers in Winnipeg is quite disheartening to say the least. And for what reason?? Just because Phoenix’ city government is being held hostage by a prospective buyer who doesn’t want to pony up the requisite resources to buy the Coyotes without a significant concession that may in fact be unconstitutional by Arizona State law? It seems rather odd that the Father of Modern Day NHL Expansion would fight so hard to save a seemingly more un-salvageable franchise in a Southwestern desert, but hardly utter a peep about a team in a city whose deep well of cultural diversity and marketing potential has barely been tapped?
Did you not utter the following words as recently as May 4, 2011 in Nashville?
“Because we fight hard for every city, because we owe it to our fans. Because we have a covenant with our fans and our fans need to know that we will stand by them as long as possible and that we don’t just run out.”
In February of 2010, you told our very own columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jeff Schultz, that “Our track record indicates we do everything we can do to avoid relocation.” You also said to Mr. Schultz that “When the ownership situation is resolved, we believe the franchise (in Atlanta) will be able to move forward. We’re committed to the market.”
Mr. Bettman, I’ve always been a staunch supporter of yours and proponent of your vision and strategy in the face of antagonists in Canada and elsewhere who doubt the potential of Atlanta as a viable hockey market. But that’s because you’ve always done whatever it takes to step up and ensure that non-traditional markets have an honest chance to survive and thrive. The NHL’s record of protecting the interests of a fledgling market to give it a fair shake in the marketplace has been sterling. The examples are numerous and most recently, the effort to preserve Tampa Bay as a viable, thriving market for hockey gave many fans here in Atlanta peace of mind. But that feeling of safety and assurance is starting to wane and the confidence we used to have in the “Bettman Doctrine” is waning. The fans in Atlanta are starting to feel betrayed not only by the “syndicate of liars” who own and control the Thrashers, but also the man who gave us a second chance at hockey glory back in 1997.
Mr. Bettman, please do not go back on your word. We earnestly beseech you to remember your recent words about the League’s “covenant with fans” and honor the promise that was made to us nearly 15 years ago. Do not let the many empty promises and double-dealings of the Atlanta Spirit Group stand in your way and worse yet, permanently scar your legacy of expansion of hockey to all corners of North America. This market CAN work with committed ownership and the correct allocation of resources. And according to local accounts, a deep-pocketed and serious buyer IS waiting for his chance to gain exclusivity in his bid to negotiate a deal to purchase all three entities from the ASG.
Jay Clemons, an award-winning writer for Sports Illustrated, had this to say about the mystery buyer’s earnest intentions: “It would blow your mind to see his revitalization plan for the Thrashers, Hawks and Philips. (He has) deep financial resources (and) a grand plan for raising the tri-group’s local, regional and national appeal. If the NBA and NHL could see the grand plan, they’d never question Atlanta as a major four-sport market again…”
Mr. Bettman, please do whatever it takes to investigate this man’s plan and help him have his chance to realize his vision. The By-Laws of your esteemed league are in place to prevent negligence and malfeasance when it comes to matters of struggling markets so that said market has a genuine and bona fide chance to succeed. According to your By-Laws, relocation is a last resort option that should only be considered and invoked when the following criteria have been fully satisfied: a) “whether the club in question is financially viable in its present location”, b) “the extent to which the fans have historically supported the club in its present location”, c) “whether the present owner of the club has made a good faith effort to find prospective purchasers who are prepared to continue operating the club in its present location” and d) “the extent to which the ownership and management of the club has contributed to any circumstances which might otherwise demonstrate a need to transfer.”
Mr. Bettman, I feel strongly that the bottom two criteria mentioned are not being satisfied and “good-faith effort” is perhaps not being utilized by the ASG in finding new owners for a team that could not even be sold until the Belkin lawsuit was settled finally last December. Court documents reveal that that ASG has wanted to sell the franchise for more than six years, and in the press, they’ll try to convince you they’ve been serious about finding new ownership for 2 ½ years. Mr. Bettman, that is patently false as clear title could not even be granted in a sale due to the legal wrangling that consumed the attention and resources of our miserly and misguided ownership group. Do not allow these liars and lazy profiteers to violate the spirit of your league’s By-Laws by allowing them to concoct a deceitful back-room deal to sell off the Thrashers to Canada when a serious, prospective buyer who wants to keep the Thrashers here DOES EXIST. While it may not be the ideal circumstances for Atlanta Spirit Group, do you really believe that they deserve such, as their actions have hardly been guided by the spirit of the league’s By-Laws?
Is it not obvious to you that they have indeed “contributed (directly) to (the current) circumstances which might otherwise demonstrate a need to transfer” the team? Certainly they alone have been the overriding force behind this team’s failure and its overall inability to thrive. Sir, please do not buy into their desperate claims that they have no other choice. Please realize that there are thousands upon thousands of folks like myself who will wholeheartedly embrace new ownership and welcome a real chance at growing the game in this market. There is a burgeoning youth hockey presence here and the game is just starting to take root. Please do not give up on the next generation of fan here in Atlanta who has not yet had the chance to wield its collective financial might as it comes of age as promising new entrants into both the Atlanta workforce and marketplace. Mr. Bettman, I urge you to honor the promise made to the city of Atlanta when the franchise was awarded in 1997. This city’s fans have had to endure the pain of too many broken promises to this point and we deserve a chance to realize our dream of team success similar to that which has come to fruition in places like Nashville, Tampa and San Jose. Mr. Bettman, please don’t let the NHL violate its covenant with the fans of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Fan / Blogger / Hockey Advocate (for now)
About the Author: Accountant / Analyst who has a nagging writing addiction when it comes to hockey. I've been a hockey fan since I was a wee tyke and now my allegiance to the Atlanta Thrashers has me "mentally thrashed". My other long-time passion is the game of golf so I'm a glutton for punishment! As a mid to late 30-something, I'm blessed to have a girlfriend who aids and abets my hockey / blogging obsession. Hockey heroes include: Gilbert Perreault, Adam Oates (Go RPI!), Pat LaFontaine and Marty Reasoner. Follow me on the twitter machine @j_barty_party