ATLANTA ≠-- It is approaching an Atlanta Thrashers game time, Friday night downtown, and the streets are choked with fans, noisy in their anticipation, making their way through the streets that lead by the Centennial Olympic Park, in front of the CNN building and beyond to the cement-faced Philips Arena.
The fans are decked out in their colours, blue mostly.
But they are not wearing a Thrasher on their chests, but a white interlocking UK, for these are the fans of University of Kentucky basketball and they are here for the Southeastern Conference championship tournament at the nearby Georgia Dome, bringing a life to downtown not often seen when it's only the Thrashers playing.
Inside the Philips Arena, with the New Jersey Devils and former Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk in town, an announced crowd of 16,073 (capacity: 18,545) is taking up the arena's pews. It's a better crowd than most nights where the Thrashers have averaged an announced crowd of 13,121, 27th in the 30-team NHL.
Only the Phoenix Coyotes and the New York Islanders draw more poorly.
The Coyotes have had the more interesting off-ice drama when it comes to ownership; the Islanders' more stable ownership, but poorer results. The Thrashers are a little of both.
But what they all have in common is a disillusioned fan base.
It's always convenient to try and nail down that one moment when things went wrong, when things shifted to bring the Thrashers to where they are today -- the team some in the NHL believe is the most likely to be relocated to Winnipeg. Or Quebec.
In the minds of some close to the Thrashers, it was a town hall meeting a few years ago in which Bruce Levenson, one of the partners in the Atlanta Spirit, which owns the Thrashers, the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and the Philips Arena, became involved in a heated exchange with a season ticket holder who was critical of the Thrashers' ownership.
"You can't have an owner getting into it like that with a customer," is the way one Thrashers insider put it.
Others point to the downfall of the Thrashers' credibility in the community unravelling because of a basketball player, Joe Johnson. The Hawks traded for the Phoenix Suns forward in 2005, a move that Steve Belkin, the third partner with Levenson and Michael Gearon in the Spirit, sued to block (the group had purchased the Hawks, Thrashers and the arena in March 2004 from Turner Broadcasting).
Their years of litigation were resolved in December, with Gearon and Levenson emerging at the managing partners, but the damage was done. Belkin was viewed as having the deepest pockets and the Spirit looks short on cash. The Thrashers have the second-lowest payroll in the league, at $41.7 million, a third-liner ahead of the Islanders (bonuses push them above the floor).
"Five-and-a-half years of litigation is never a good thing," Thrashers president Don Waddell said. "Hockey fans, in general, I feel, are very passionate about their team, but any time there's news like that, it affects them negatively and ownership suing each other through five or six trials is very negative."
When you've got a choice of potential tipping points, you know it's not a good situation.
Put yourself in the place of a Thrashers fan: when your owners show more passion for beating each other than putting a product on the ice to beat the rest of the NHL, something is wrong. You have to wonder if the fans in a market like, say Calgary or Ottawa, had to put up with what's gone on here, if they wouldn't have turned their backs on their clubs, too.
"The hockey fans in Atlanta are tired of this ownership," said Waddell, who was the team's first general manager until giving way to Rick Dudley last summer. "They're not bad guys, but it is what is."
"The trust between this ownership group and the community is broken," said one NHL insider, "and the only thing that is going to change the relationship between the Thrashers and the Atlanta hockey fans is a new owner."
Do we even really know how good a hockey market Atlanta could be, given what's gone on here?
"We've only given it a partial test," Waddell said. "The year we won the division and went to the playoffs with Bob Hartley as coach, the last dozen games we sold out about 10 and the two playoff games ... we need to win more and make the post-season. In a couple of years, I think you would find out this is a very viable market."
Waddell is spending most of his waking hours now courting three potential owners, two local and one from out of state -- believed to be from Michigan -- who intend to keep the team in Atlanta. It's complicated because without control of the building, it's tough to see how the Thrashers could make it.
"You would need a great lease if you were only going to own the Thrashers and become a tenant," said one source familiar with the situation. "I just don't know if that deal is there. Anybody looking at that situation, I think, needs to buy all three (the building, the Hawks and the Thrashers). Now you're looking at a transaction north of $600 million and I don't know if there are a lot of guys who can do that."
Reports peg the Thrashers losses at $130 million over the last five years, but in the three-headed monster with the Hawks and the building, it's tough to tell into which pockets the money goes and who holds the bag.
"Winning would solve a lot of issues," Waddell said. "The new owner is going to have to be prepared to spend some money."
If there is a new owner.
Meanwhile, as the Thrashers push for just their second playoff berth since their inception in 1999-2000, Thrashers fans must be wondering where to look. For a white knight on the horizon or eyes west to Phoenix?
If the Coyotes stay in Phoenix (granted, a longer shot with each passing day) and the Thrashers go unsold, they become the candidate to go to Winnipeg.
Or if Coyotes go to Winnipeg, do the Thrashers go to Quebec?
"It could be a tight timeline," Waddell said, "depending on what happens out west."
Some in the NHL believe the Thrashers could be moved as early as for next year, depending on what happens in Phoenix. Once the Coyotes situation is resolved, the Thrashers might have as little as six weeks to resolve their situation.
"We don't like moving franchises," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told QMI Agency at the NHL's general managers' meetings Wednesday. "We try to do everything sensible under the situation to avoid it. Sometimes you get to unavoidable situations either because of ownership or buildings or what have you, but you hope never to be in that situation."
Can they find a new owner, which seems to be the only way to save the Thrashers?
"Hopefully ... but they've been looking," Bettman said. "They've had some ownership issues there. You can't ever just boil it down to one thing. You have to look at the whole context."
This context isn't pretty.
Winnipeg beckons. And Quebec stands in line.