NHL: The Relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers, and the Ripple Effects to Come
This week, it was announced (finally) that the Atlanta Thrashers have been sold to True North Sports and Entertainment and will be packing their bags for Winnipeg, Manitoba.
This move will no doubt result in eventual conference realignment, but I think it means much more than that. The decision from the NHL to allow a struggling team in a big media market to relocate to a town the size of Winnipeg was a breach of the personal code Commissioner Bettman has lived by for the last 20 years.
Ever since the mid-'90s push to spread the game to new markets like Florida, North Carolina, Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta, Bettman has stood by his decisions, no matter how much money the teams were losing.
In May 2009, in an effort to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, Bettman and the NHL seized the team out of bankruptcy and have held the reins ever since. However, in allowing the sale of the Thrashers to move forward, Bettman has conceded that maybe the southern expansion wasn’t what the NHL, or the game of hockey, really needed.
Teams in non-traditional hockey markets have experienced lackluster fan support, poor team performance and out of date facilities, and many owners are now left holding the bill.
Here are the three teams I think could be on the move in the next few seasons, as well as a few possible landing spots.
3. New York Islanders
This is probably a bit of a surprise to some, but even with the four Stanley Cups and eight Hall of Famers, the Islanders have a lot working against them.
In a region saturated with hockey teams (Rangers, Devils, Flyers), an inferior product will not keep fans in the seats. With the Islanders missing the playoffs the last four seasons, and not having won a playoff series in nearly 20 years, attendance has plummeted. In fact, over the last four seasons, the team has ranked last in attendance three times.
As is often the case, the short term answer is winning, in hopes of filling the arena. However, there is a bigger issue looming that will ultimately decide the fate of the franchise; the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The Islanders have played in the same building for the last 39 years, and repeated efforts to secure a new arena before their lease expires in 2015 have failed. Currently, there is a plan in place to move forward with the "Lighthouse Project," and it will be up to taxpayers to decide on August 1st. If the plan is rejected, expect the team to be on their way to Quebec City, where a brand new arena will be opening in time for the 2015-2016 season.
Dark horse relocation city: Hartford, Connecticut
2. Florida Panthers
When I began researching for this article, I expected to see the Panthers at the bottom in terms of attendance and overall value, but was pleasantly surprised. While they are operating a deficit situation, things aren’t as bad financially as the other teams on the list. Simply put, the Panthers struggles can be blamed on location and ownership.
The Panthers were placed in Sunshine, Florida in hopes of spreading the appeal of the game we all love. Instead, they’ve been washed out by the Heat, the Dolphins,and even the Lightning.
In response to dwindling attendance numbers, the Panthers marketing team has resorted to odd give aways like logo embroidered yarmulkes for Hanukkah, or a Panthers inspired Mr. Potato Head. In addition, near the end of this season, tickets to home games were practically free.
It's sad to see a team turned into such a spectacle, and even worse, I expect the team's one bright spot, Tomas Vokoun, to depart in the offseason.
This failed expansion experiment will end soon enough, and the Panthers will go west to Kansas City’s beautiful new NHL-ready Sprint Arena.
Dark horse relocation city: Seattle, Washington
1. Phoenix Coyotes
This one is really a no-brainer. In the last four seasons, the Coyotes have seen their fan support plummet when they needed it the most, averaging an abysmal 29th in attendance.
Furthermore, Forbes states the Phoenix-based franchise is only worth an estimated $134 million, the lowest value in the league. Compare that to the $505 million price tag on the Maple Leafs, and you see just how bad things have gotten in the desert.
Lack of a big-name superstar and stable ownership means this team will be relocating in the next few seasons, but the question is where. I believe that in the end, if the previously mentioned cities (Kansas City, Quebec) have already received franchises, the next best place would be Hamilton, Ontario.
We are witnessing the renaissance of the NHL in Canada.
Dark horse relocation city: North/South Dakota (similar situation to Carolina Hurricanes)