Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg: What This Reversal of History Means for the NHL

Chris HuebnerContributor IIIMay 31, 2011

J-E-T-S! JETS! JETS! JETS!Al Bello/Getty Images

To understand the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, you need to understand what drove the expansion and relocation of NHL teams in the past. In his book The Game, Ken Dryden talks about what drove the expansion of the NHL from 1967 through the mid-1970’s. Part of the reason was to deal with the growing competition from the other major American sports. This led to the creation of six new teams, all in major American markets (Pittsburgh, LA, Minneapolis, Oakland, St. Louis and Philly).

Another reason for expansion was to deal with a competing hockey league, the WHA. The WHA had an effect on the NHL similar to what the ABA had on the NBA or the USFL had on the NFL.

The new hockey league made a few changes to the game, most notably the introduction of European players en masse. But the biggest, most important evolution was the money that the WHA was throwing at its players. Again, similar to how the USFL and ABA forced their way to the consciousness of the American sports fan by stealing great players like Artis Gilmore or Herschel Walker, the World Hockey Association gave out record contracts to great players like Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Hull.

Fearing that the WHA could gain the upper hand, the NHL quickly moved to block them out of other key markets. Thus teams like the Vancouver Canucks (founded in 1970) and the New York Islanders (1972) were created.

Ultimately, the NHL dealt with the WHA head on, and in a similar fashion to how the NFL and NBA dealt with its rival leagues, made a compromise.

The WHA was bleeding cash, and the NHL knew it. World Hockey teams did not have the consistent income that the more established NHL did, and they could not continue paying the massive contracts they promised their players. So the NHL wanted to eliminate the WHA quickly, while it was weak. The strongest of the WHA teams (the Whalers, Nordiques, Oilers and Jets) were merged into the NHL, and the rest of the league went defunct.

Thus there was a third wave of expansion, adding 15 teams in a little more than a decade.

The league stayed at this size through the 1980’s until current commissioner Gary Bettman rose to power in the early 1990’s. There was a new wave of expansion.

Beginning two years before Bettman, hockey teams popped up in “non-traditional hockey markets” like Tampa Bay and San Jose. More expansion teams were added during Bettman’s reign in these types of markets (Nashville, Atlanta and Florida).

Many hockey fans (myself included) blame Bettman for failing to support teams in smaller, weaker markets (especially teams in Canada). These teams are not as conducive for big television contracts (TV ratings in Canadian cities do not count towards US TV ratings) and do not have the potential for growth that bigger markets have. Bettman stood by (or was subtly complicit) as teams were taken from hockey-crazy markets like Quebec City, Minnesota and Winnipeg and moved to Dallas, Colorado and Phoenix. (Being born and raised in the Hartford area, I must say that the Whalers were justified in leaving Connecticut. Attendance was terrible – unlike the attendance of North Stars, Jets or Nordiques games.)

If these teams gained consistent fan bases, the moves would be massive successes. As many people noted during the past few weeks, the Winnipeg metro area is about 14 percent the size of Atlanta’s metro area. If just one out of every fifth person in Atlanta, Dallas or Phoenix became a hockey fan, the fan base would be much bigger than it could ever be in its Canadian market.

The other reason for the movement of Canadian teams to “non-traditional hockey markets” was economics. Obviously smaller markets would have trouble raising the same funds that a larger market could, but the exchange rate between Canada’s economy and the US’s played a large role. As the Canadian dollar dropped to about 60 percent of the value of the US dollar, small market teams had even more trouble earning revenue (which was in Canadian dollars) to cover their costs (which were in US dollars).

Both of the above reasons have been proven false. Firstly, the NHL has learned the same lesson that many great, promising athletes have: potential means nothing if it is never attained. One in five people in Atlanta never became hockey fans. Attendance in many of these markets is terrible. Compare that to a Canadian market: We can all assume that virtually 100 percent of sports fans in Canada have at least some interest in hockey, if they are not already rabid fans.

Even though there are only 700,000 people in Winnipeg (compared to over five million in Atlanta), attendance to Winnipeg hockey games will probably be better attended than Thrasher games ever were.

The other reason—the economic reason—has been proven false as well. Bettman, because of how he has supported failing teams in Buffalo and Phoenix, has proven that money is not an issue when a team considers relocation.

In Buffalo’s case, the NHL bought the team for a period of time until it was able to be purchased by a private ownership group. This was done to prevent the team from leaving its city.

Phoenix followed the same path. After it declared bankruptcy in 2009, Bettman delayed negotiations for the sale of the team until it was essentially given a $25 million loan by the city of Glendale and allowed to stay in Arizona. (Technically, the city of Glendale bought a share of the arena in which the Coyotes play. But the money, whether it was for buying the team or the arena, went to the owners of the team and allowed them to stay in Arizona.)

So Bettman has shown that, if he feels like it, he and the league can prevent teams from moving. He did this to keep teams like the Sabres and the Coyotes in the United States, and he could have done this to keep hockey in rabid Canadian markets, but he failed to do it over the last few weeks. Now the Thrashers are going to Winnipeg.

Ultimately, the move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Canada has proven that Bettman’s original strategy for the growth of the NHL was wrong. A team cannot be a financially successful franchise just by moving to a market without a competing hockey team.People in Arizona or Georgia cannot be convinced to become hockey fans just because there is a hockey game going on.

Instead, I hope Bettman realizes that he must care about the fans of hockey instead of the bottom line. People care about hockey in Minnesota, Vancouver, Montreal and other cities in Canada and the northern United States. Gary needs to cater the sport to these people. He can start by moving failing American hockey teams back to their original Canadian cities. Winnipeg is just the start of this exodus. There will be at least another team in Quebec City. Trust me.

Is this recent relocation a good thing for the NHL? Will more teams follow the Thrashers back to Canada? What do you think? Respond below!