NHL Relocation Rumors: How Would Thrashers Move to Winnipeg Change the NHL?

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NHL Relocation Rumors: How Would Thrashers Move to Winnipeg Change the NHL?
Glenn Cratty/Getty Images

Hockey is back in Winnipeg at last? Indeed, it might just be true.

Toronto's newspaper, The Globe and Mail, reported early Friday morning that of a deal that would send the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, Manitoba in a sale of the franchise from the Atlanta Spirit ownership group to the True North Sports group.

Other sources stated similar reports and mentioned that True North Sports would be paying $40 to $50 million for the rights to the team.

Winnipeg is currently home to the AHL Manitoba Moose, affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. The city has already had one encounter with an NHL team, as the Winnipeg Jets played in the NHL from 1979-1996 before moving to Phoenix.

The relocation would also be the NHL's first since 1997, when the Hartford Whalers moved to Carolina, and the first new team to play in the league since the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets were added in 2000.

While many Winnipeg fans are thrilled of the reports, the rest of the hockey world still has some questions about the move. Why did they lose the Jets in '96, and why can't that happen again? How will this affect the NHL arrangement? Where will the new Winnipeg team play? And, perhaps, where exactly is Winnipeg?

In addition to those doubts, the Thrashers switch would cause a great deal of re-aligning to happen this summer. Unlike the rumors of a Coyotes return to Manitoba's capital that swirled last month, the Atlanta-to-Winnipeg relocation would be an inter-conference one. Furthermore, what would be the fate of the Moose in this case? They would need to relocate as well.

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We'll take a look at a first glimpse of how this relocation, if it comes through, would change the National Hockey League.

 

Welcome to Winnipeg

Although a fair number of casual hockey fans that have only recently gotten into the sport may not have even heard of Winnipeg, Canada, they've deserved another NHL team for a while.

As a provincial capital, Winnipeg is the ninth largest city in the country with just over 640,000 residents (based on 2006 estimates). Additionally, it is the most populated urban area in a 1,684-mile stretch of central Canada from Calgary to Toronto.

The new Winnipeg NHL team would be certain to play in MTS Centre, right in the middle of downtown. The arena has a capacity of 15,015 for hockey, which would make it the smallest in the league at the moment but still suitable enough.

 

Can Winnipeg Support an NHL Team?

While the majority of the consensus would likely say that they can, there are some lingering doubts.

Photo Credit: HockeyDraft.ca

First of all, there are questions regarding the size of MTS Arena. It's not ridiculously small, but it still would be the smallest in the NHL by over 2,000 seats.

Secondly, the attendance of the Jets during their first stint is somewhat sketchy. Winnipeg may be in Canada, but they haven't shown the passion for hockey as other cities have.

The Jets played in Winnipeg Arena, capacity 15,393, for all of their time in Manitoba. Over 17 seasons, the team averaged only just about 13,000 per game in attendance, a number that dipped as low as 11,316 in their final season. That translates into a 92.5 percent of capacity filled on average, a number that would've been ranked 20th this past regular season for current teams.

On the other hand, the Moose have consistently ranked among the most well-supported minor league hockey teams around. During the 2010-2011 regular season, Manitoba finished second in the AHL in average attendance at 8,404 per game. In '09-'0, they were second at 8,086 per game. For the '08-'09 season, they were second at 7,769 per game. And, if you don't already get the picture, the Moose were also second in '07-'08 with 7,807 per game.

Even with those two conflicting attendance trends to work with, there are questions about the general population of Winnipeg.

Since some teams—for example, the Panthers playing in Sunrise, Florida or the Islanders playing in Uniondale, New York—aren't in the city they're really drawing from, it's best to compare NHL cities by metropolitan area population. In this case, every single team has a metro region with a population of seven figures, with the lowest (the Edmonton area) sitting at 1,079,000 residents. Winnipeg's metropolitan area, which consists of...well...you guessed it, just Winnipeg, is a good 350,000 short of hitting a million people.

One good sign for the future of this new Winnipeg team is the fact that it's very unlikely a situation will arise again similar to the one that caused the doom of the Jets. With the NHL expanding rapidly in the '90's and the addition of the salary cap after the '94-'95 lockout, Winnipeg's struggle with a small market and also with the less-valuable Canadian dollar caused severe financial issues that eventually led to their relocation. To put it simply, we don't expect that to happen again this time.

 

How Would the NHL and AHL Alignments be Changed?

When you're moving a team 1,288 miles, as the Thrashers are in their switch from Atlanta, something is going to need to be changed. In this case, it's not only the divisions but the conferences.

Atlanta, which was a part of the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division, will be replaced by Winnipeg, which will certainly have to be part of the Western Conference and would fit best in the Northwest Division.

With that in mind, some other arrangements would have to be made. The Nashville Predators, which match quite well in both geographic and cultural terms with the rest of the Southeast, will likely be the franchise making the move between conferences. Their change would leave a gap in the Central Division.

That hole would be filled the best by the Colorado Avalanche (who, ironically, moved to Colorado one season before the old Jets team left). The Avs would then leave the gap in the Northwest Division to be filled by Winnipeg.

Of course, there are some other alternative changes that could be made as well. For example, after moving Nashville to the Southeast, Minnesota may be a better team to switch from the Northwest to the Central since it would allow them to play rival Chicago two more times each season. Another possibility would be a more complex Nashville-to-Southeast, Dallas-to-Central, Vancouver-to-Pacific, Winnipeg-fills-the-gap rotation.

At the AHL level, the move of the Moose would become imminent. Reports say that the Canucks' top candidates cities to relocate the team, if the Thrashers' relocation is confirmed, are St. John's, Newfoundland or Thunder Bay, Ontario. Both sites how some downfalls, however.

Other rumors have swirled over negotiations between the Canucks and Flames to get Calgary to move it's farm team, the Heat, out of Abbotsford, British Columbia (a better geographic location for the 'Nucks' interest). Despite the current presence of the Blades, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is also another enticing option.

 

How Would it Affect the Players?

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Bryan Little is one player who will appreciate the move.

One of the less-hyped aspects of a relocation is its effects on the players. Indeed, the team is moving and its name is changing, but the roster isn't.

The Thrashers' current lineup has ten Canadians and eight Americans on it, a ratio that's closer than most teams but still tipped slightly towards the side of the players moving closer to home.

Not one United States-born on Atlanta at the moment was born anywhere near the South, though, while Evander Kane, born in Vancouver, Andrew Ladd, from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Bryan Little, with a hometown of Edmonton, Ben Maxwell, born in North Vancouver, B.C., and Chris Mason, from Red Deer, Alberta, will all be making a big move towards the place of their childhood memories.

The franchise's move to Winnipeg could also spark some interest among players interested in returning home that Atlanta certainly did not.

A whopping total of zero current NHLers were born in Atlanta. Conversely, 13 current NHL players hail from Winnipeg, including some pretty big names. Blackhawks duo Jonathan Teows and Patrick Sharp were both born in Winnipeg, as was their defensive teammate Duncan Keith. New Jersey's Travis Zajac, St. Louis's Alexander Steen, Minnesota's Cam Barker and Detroit's Darren Helm hail from Winnipeg, too.

Of course, this is all speculative. In truth, nothing is official yet, even if we think it is. But, if the deal does get wrapped up and announced over the next few days, we're going to see a lot more changes around the league this summer than just free agency will bring.

Nothing's set in stone for how those changes will settle themselves out, either. Hopefully, though, we at least have a bit of a picture now of what to expect to follow with the relocation.

In the meantime, one of the hottest topics today that we didn't touch on is this; what will the name of the new Winnipeg team be? Will they go back to the Jets? Keep the Thrashers? Take a different kind of bird? Go with the alliteration route (Winnipeg Warriors, etc.)? Choose something relative to the area (i.e. Polar Bears, Blizzard, or the like)? Or just take a completely random approach?

Chime in with your team name ideas in the comment section.

 

Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his two years so far with the site, he has written over 270 articles and received over 265,000 total reads.

Visit his profile to read more, or follow him on  Twitter

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