Thrashers failure rests with owners (and the NHL, too)

The Globe and Mail

(JOHN BAZEMORE)

Most, especially in these parts, will blame Atlanta itself for the loss.

But picking through the ashes of the city's second NHL franchise, with an announcement still to come, a few things are very clearly not on the fan base.

This was, for one, a franchise that never won a single playoff game in almost 12 years of existence. One run by Don Waddell for every season but this past one, a period during which the Thrashers posted a record of 308-401-45-66, an average of less than 31 wins for every 82 games.

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More importantly, this was a franchise owned by a group that had absolutely no interest in owning them.

That group was known as Atlanta Spirit, an unwieldy bunch of nine investors from three cities who purchased the team, along with the Atlanta Hawks, in 2004. Two were family members of former owner Ted Turner. And all were big basketball fans.

Almost immediately, they began to quietly try to unload the NHL team.

Problem was, beginning in 2005, the nine member group was tied up in litigation that ended up lasting five and a half years, a period that left the Thrashers with an owner that couldn't wait to dump the team and with Waddell in charge.

Those details emerged in a malpractice suit earlier this year that the Spirit group filed against its law firm, along with numbers on how much they felt the delayed sale had cost them:

"As a direct and proximate result of King & Spalding's negligence, Plaintiffs have been damaged as set forth above, including spending $14.5-million, inclusive of accrued interest, defending the Maryland litigation; being unable to sell or otherwise dispose of the Atlanta Thrashers and thereby sustaining at least $50-million in loss of franchise value; and incurring losses in excess of $130-million operating the Thrashers that would otherwise have been avoided."

By the time the lawsuit finally wrapped, and Boston-based owner Steve Belkin was given his buyout, the Spirit group (which now has all sorts of colourful nicknames from the fans) couldn't wait to dump the NHL team.

Only no one was buying.

When the Phoenix Coyotes situation began to go bad and Winnipeg's True North group emerged as a legitimate home for a new NHL team, the Spirit group took a keen interest, to the point that when Glendale "saved" the Coyotes recenty by paying another $25-million, they were ready to sign on the dotted line.

And there wasn't much, at that point, the NHL could have done, especially with the board of governors having no interest in taking over another team.

Now, no one's going to argue that Atlanta has this vast untapped NHL fan base or that they could have been one of the league's top franchises, but there's evidence the Thrashers could have easily avoided being a basket case, in the right situation.

In the only two seasons the team had more than 40 wins, attendance spiked at more than 15,500 fans a game.

Like many of the NHL's new markets in the U.S. Sun Belt, there is a core of diehards in the city who stuck with a franchise that even its owners didn't want.

There was, however, never enough success on the ice to generate the type of modest financial success in places like Tampa Bay, Carolina and San Jose.

With so much expansion in a short period of time in the '90s, some of those warm weather teams were going to lose a lot of games, some were going to have very poor ownership situations and some, eventually, would be targeted for relocation.

Here was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Mark Bradley last week with a good eulogy on the team:

"They've had 11 seasons, three more than the Flames did. They set up shop in a new arena and rode a wave of good will. They capitalized on none of it. If/when they leave, it won't be because Atlanta failed the Thrashers. It will be because the Thrashers failed Atlanta."

And they did so spectacularly, to the point that there's now plenty of blame to go around.

But the biggest heaping should be reserved for both the Atlanta Spirit, one of the more inept ownership groups in a league with a long history of them, and the NHL, for allowing this group to steer the Thrashers into the ground almost from Day 1.

Under the circumstances, it's amazing they had as many fans as they did.

And the truth is, this is a league where there are at least a half dozen teams in as big a financial mess as Atlanta.

Atlanta is just the first to get out.

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