All eyes on Thrashers-to-Winnipeg story

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman listens during a news conference at the NHL All-Star hockey skills...

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman listens during a news conference at the NHL All-Star hockey skills competition in Raleigh, North Carolina, January 29, 2011. (REUTERS/Shaun Best)

DAN DI SCIULLO, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 3:51 PM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- This is the time of year that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman expects hockey fans to be glued to their televisions, watching yet another exciting Stanley Cup Playoffs unfold.

But while the conference finals may be dominating hockey headlines in Tampa, Boston, San Jose and Vancouver, thousands of other NHL enthusiasts have their eyes fixed on the situation coming out of Atlanta.

According to numerous reports, Atlanta Spirit -- the business partnership that owns the NHL's Thrashers as well as the NBA's Hawks -- are in negotiations to sell the franchise to True North Sports and Entertainment, a group that wishes to purchase the club and move it to Winnipeg, possibly in time for the start of the 2011-12 season.

Of course, nobody knows how close the sides are to agreeing on the sale and the NHL won't say much until a deal is officially reached. Also, if Atlanta Spirit and True North were to agree on a sale, the NHL's Board of Governors would still have to approve the new ownership group.

But a recent report from the Winnipeg Free Press says the NHL is working on two schedule drafts for next season -- one with Winnipeg and another with Atlanta. That could be taken as a sign that Bettman and league officials will not stand in the way of this move like they have with other potential relocations in the past.

As those who have followed other stories about NHL franchises in financial trouble know, there always seems to be a way to save a club that finds itself in a fiscal crisis.

Nashville was in deep trouble a few years ago, but was ultimately rescued by new investors. In Phoenix, however, the league has been more than a little bit hands-on in its approach to keeping the Coyotes in Arizona.

The Coyotes, who moved from Winnipeg to the Phoenix area following the Jets' final season in 1995-96, may be forced from the desert eventually due to their situation, but that won't be until at least after next season thanks to a recent decision by the Glendale City Council. The council agreed to pay the NHL $25 million to keep the team in Glendale for the 2011-12 campaign, which marks the second straight year that the city opted to pay the league that price to remain at Jobing.com Arena.

The league has owned the troubled Coyotes franchise since 2009, but it is still determined to secure an owner that will keep the team in Glendale. That is even after the franchise lost a reported $37 million last season and was second-to-last in the NHL in attendance.

Still, the biggest factor that could lead to Winnipeg regaining an NHL franchise is that True North is not employing a scorched-earth policy approach to moving the Thrashers, like Jim Balsillie did when he attempted to uproot the Coyotes from Glendale in 2009. Balsillie's brash demeanor alienated not only the commissioner, but also the NHL owners who did not want the Canadian businessman joining their club.

Instead, the Winnipeg group has concentrated its efforts in getting a deal done quietly with Atlanta Spirit behind closed doors. That's a far cry from Balsillie's strategy, which included a massive PR campaign called "Make it Seven" -- an organized effort to curry even more public favor for the arrival of a seventh NHL franchise in Canada.

Balsillie sought to shame the NHL into moving a club to Canada, and that was never going to fly with Bettman and the league brass.

While the league may have deluded itself into thinking hockey can still work in the Phoenix area, the NHL could be willing to let its Atlanta experiment fail for a second time.

The Atlanta Flames lasted eight years before picking up and moving to Calgary following the 1979-80 season. The Thrashers have been in town for 11 seasons, beginning as an expansion club in the fall of 1999. But Atlanta's current hockey club has only made the playoffs once in that time and earlier this year, Atlanta Spirit claimed that the franchise had lost over $130 million since 2005. Although the prospects in Phoenix aren't much better, Bettman knows the league can't do for every team what it has done for the Coyotes.

The NHL angered many folks in basically deeming the Coyotes "Too big to fail". The league doesn't need another PR hit when it's obvious the Thrashers are dying a slow death in Atlanta. If the Thrashers are moved it will already be a blow to Bettman's much-maligned strategy of expanding the league to non- traditional hockey markets, but he doesn't need to compound the problem by trying to save another lost cause.

As with most business negotiations, there is no telling how the talks between Atlanta Spirit and True North will play out in the end, but the prospect of the NHL playing in Winnipeg next year seems very real at this stage.

And just like Bettman would prefer this story go away until after the playoffs are over, he would also probably favor the Thrashers staying in Atlanta. Too bad the commissioner has already chosen his battle in the desert, and that could wind up being great news for those begging for the NHL's return to Winnipeg.


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