First things first: The Thrashers to Winnipeg is not a done deal, as reported late last night by ESPN and (as was assumed) vehemently denied by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman this morning.
He had the following to say regarding the matter on his weekly radio show on Thursday night:
"The key to this may be, in the final analysis, whether or not somebody wants to own the team in Atlanta, in the absence of either the current ownership group continuing to own and operate or somebody stepping forward who wants to buy the club, that becomes the situation that concerns us or any sports league."
True North, the group attempting to move a team to the Winnipeg area, has also denied that a deal has been completed to move the Thrashers to the area.
What. A. Mess.
So lets say, hypothetically of course, that this deal goes through and Winnipeg finally gets the hockey that they so wrongfully lost to Phoenix. Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane and the rest of the Thrash get a phone call in the middle of next week: "Pack your stuff, you're heading to Winnipeg."
The Thrashers move, rename themselves the Jets or the Swampthings of Winnipeg or whatever it may be, and finally just get down to playing hockey. I'm assuming a billion season tickets would be sold within seconds of the news breaking on Twitter, and over 2,000 people would attend the first open practice.
And Zach Bogosian would look on in amazement.
All some of these players have known is Atlanta, not a hockey hotbed by any standards (they have dedicated followers just like a local slow-pitch softball team might, but it hasn't translated to numbers: The Thrashers were 28th out of 30 in attendance last year).
All this hoopla over a hockey team that hasn't won a single game yet?
People asking second string goaltenders for their photos when they go out to eat at Tim Horton's?
Welcome to hockey in Canada. This 'aint Atlanta anymore. Not by a long shot.
Suddenly a whole squad that is used to playing in particular conditions would have to shift gears. Even mean dudes like Chris Pronger (or arguably, his wife) have had a hard time adjusting to the bright, sky lighting Bat signal that is the hockey spotlight in Canada.
So I ask this question: Why do people think that this is going to be easy?
First off, these poor fans, both in Winnipeg and in Atlanta, this has got to be causing some folks to be losing sleep at night. I'm looking at you, guy that scoured the HFBoards just looking for a small update last night while the east coast reporters were busy, you know, sleeping.
And what about the players mixed up in all this that have zero control over their apparent destiny; to lead the hockey charge back to the mother country. Was that what Dustin Byfuglien was signing up for? I'm not so sure. Being forced to move to a freezing cold place against your will may have adverse effects on performance.
Sure, these guys are professionals and don't think any one person would come out directly and say "I think this idea is terrible. I don't want to play there." But one or two of them may think it. And that will not be a positive thing in the locker room once the regular season starts.
And that is what all this is about, right?
Seeing 41 home games and making a lot of noise and fireworks for the newly anointed kings of Winnipeg.
Well I hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but the Jets... er, Thrashers are a ways off from needing the city they play in to plan a Stanley Cup route.
Fans in Winnipeg should start tampering their expectations now.
The Atlanta Thrashers are not, by any means, a perennial contender. This isn't NHL 11' on the Playstation, where you can fast-forward a few years and some no-namer you drafted in the seventh round goes all Pavel Datsyuk and becomes the best player in the world.
This is reality, and the reality is that the Atlanta Thrashers are not that good of a hockey team.
They came out of the gates flying last season, only to fall back into the pack of the top-heavy Eastern Conference. They finished 13 points out of a playoff spot, and only the Florida Panthers performed worse in the Southeast Division.
Canada, in acquiring the Thrashers, would be taking on yet another long term rebuilding project. Ask fans in Toronto or Edmonton how long that can take. The future is bright in both of those cities, but will they be contending with teams like the Red Wings and Penguins next year?
There is a huge gap between where the Thrashers are and where the top teams in the NHL are.
Perhaps the team ends up with deep pockets, and can start signing free agents and making trades to rapidly improve. Because big names sign on with Canadian teams willingly so often, right? I'm sorry, but they just don't.
So the verdict?
Winnipeg is probably going to get their hockey team, be it the Thrashers or some other haphazard franchise. But whatever team they acquire, it will have been failing for a reason. And that reason will have been because the team isn't a winner.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel for the fans that have worked so diligently to get a team back in Winnipeg if the ultimate goal was just to see NHL level action again.
If the goal was to win a Stanley Cup, I hear hell is dark and hot.
Any team in Winnipeg will have to traverse this figurative landscape to become competitive. And it is a long, hard road out of the south.
Do we really need more proof that the only difference between Canadian fans and American ones is that fans north of the border will continuously pay to see a losing team?
Should the Thrashers end up in Winnipeg, we will have an answer once and for all.
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