The Soap Opera Turns
It's going to be hard for the Bettman administration to portray this as a momentous triumph.
Yes, the 14th richest man in the world, David Thomson, is about to become an NHL owner, which should make him somewhat more worthy than John Rigas, Bruce McNall, Boots del Biaggio, John Spano, Bruce Firestone and some of the other folks who have successfully infiltrated the NHL's board of governors in the last 20 years. In fact, it immediately makes Thomson the richest guy at the NHL table.
That's gotta be a good thing.
But Bettman went back to Atlanta in 1999 saying the city had changed in the two decades since the Flames had left for Calgary, and that it would be different this time.
It wasn't. The Thrashers began their existence with one of the worst drafting efforts in NHL history and 12 years later are pulling up stakes. For the second time, the league is beating a hasty retreat out of Georgia, leaving a huge U.S. market for a tiny Canadian one.
During those dozen years, Bettman has said over and over and over, whether he was talking about Edmonton or Pittsburgh or Ottawa or Buffalo or Phoenix or yes, even Atlanta, that he didn't like relocating teams, that he didn't like the example it set or the message it conveyed to loyal fans.
Now, with nowhere near the fight that was put up to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, the Thrashers are packing up the moving vans for The Peg. Market forces are market forces and those created by the downturn in the U.S. economy are powerful indeed.
Still, there's no chance this is what the NHL wanted to do, so finding a way it make it seem that's the case is going to be a real trick. It cannot portray this as a calculated maneuver. The likeliest strategy now will be to announce a season ticket campaign in Winnipeg - there are suggestions the team will be looking for a three-year committment from buyers - which will be the NHL's attempt to assert "control" over the process. It's why you're the league can say last night and today that this deal isn't official. The Bettman administration likes to stage-manage these events, and putting conditions on an already done deal after the fact is one way to at least be seen to be doing that.
Meanwhile, its going to be very hard for the NHL commissioner to ensure this isn't the beginning of a stampede to the Great White North.
For starters, interested parties in Canada now have hard evidence that a franchise can be extricated out of the U.S. and moved north. That will encourage the folks in Quebec City to get that arena up and built on schedule by 2015, and quite probably encourage those in the GTA who think announcing a new NHL-sized arena is all that would be necessary to land an existing franchise.
As well, U.S. teams spurting red ink now see a way out of their predicament, with the Thrashers likely to be sold for something well in excess of their actual value. Tampa Bay went for cheap to Jeff Vinik, and NHL owners of money-losing teams might look at Atlanta's impending sale to Winnipeg as evidence there's more money to be made - or recovered - by dealing with a Canadian suitor.
Then again, we probably already knew that, didn't we? Jim Balsillie was willing to pay a lot more for the Coyotes than Matthew Hulsizer is, and it's an intriguing debate as to whether the NHL would be a stronger league today with a Balsillie-owned franchise in Hamilton rather than the taxpayer-supported mess in Glendale.
Phoenix still doesn't have an owner. Meanwhile Florida and Columbus are two clubs that will be watched carefully now for possible moves. If a real arena project ever gets announced in the GTA - Markham rumours are rife - you know that will generate all kinds of momentum. Let's just say if there was a building set to open in the GTA in the next two years, there would be two or more NHL clubs angling to move into it, with or without NHL permission.