In Atlanta, the tears were flowing at Thrashers co-owner Michael Gearon’s ‘goodbye’ press conference.
In Winnipeg, fans packed the streets to celebrate the return of their beloved NHL franchise.
In Philadelphia, and elsewhere in team offices across the league, executives pondered how the NHL’s first relocation since 1998 will have an impact on the future of the sport - beyond just a different stop on the map.
True North Sports and Entertainment purchased the Thrashers for approximately $170 million this week, which includes a $60 million relocation fee that will be split with the rest of the league’s 29 teams.
The relocation, which will bring a franchise back to Canada after the Jets bolted for Phoenix in 1996, will not be finalized until the Board of Governor’s approve the sale at their June 21 meeting. That is all but a formality, as commissioner Gary Bettman attended the press conference in Winnipeg on Tuesday to announce the sale. And besides, where else do the Thrashers have to go?
Tuesday officially marked the end of an era in the NHL. Atlanta became not only the first city to lose an NHL franchise twice - as the Flames moved to Calgary in 1980 - but it also marked the NHL’s willingness to give up on one of the largest markets in the United States to slide into a small, Canadian prairie town.
All that is missing for this new Winnipeg franchise is a name.
Although the NHL holds all of the rights and trademarks to the Jets name and logo, it has been rumored that True North - which also owns the AHL’s Manitoba Moose - would like to see that Moose brand continued to be promoted since they have already sunk money into it.
The rest of the league, however, isn’t concerned with a name.
They want to know how a relocation will effect any possible realignment of divisions and conferences. The Winnipeg Free Press reported in early May that the league’s schedule-makers were already drawing up matrixes that included a team in both Atlanta and Winnipeg.
ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun reported on Tuesday that the league will not seek any realignment changes for the 2011-12 season. That means that Winnipeg will be sticking in the Eastern Conference’s Southeast division.
That also means that the Flyers will be playing Winnipeg four times next season, including two stops in the world’s coldest city with a population of over 600,000.
That may sound like a ridiculous hike for teams like Tampa Bay and Florida. Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Winnipeg would be the longest trip for any division rivals in the NHL:
(all mileage is approximate, via Mapquest)
Florida to Winnipeg = 2200 miles
Minnesota to Vancouver = 1800 miles
San Jose to Dallas = 1700 miles
Vancouver to Colorado = 1500 miles
But it has been pointed out that jaunt to Winnipeg is closer for the Carolina Hurricanes than, say, a trip to Denver to visit the Avalanche. The only difference is that the Hurricanes would need to do it three times a year instead of twice every three seasons.
So, why don’t the Board of Governors put their heads together before their June 21 meeting and come up with a plan that makes sense for everyone? A third grader can look at a map and tell you in three seconds that Winnipeg - smack in the center of North America - doesn’t belong playing in the Southeast division.
Unfortunately, with millions of dollars and years of tradition in rivalry on the line, a decision like this - which would be the league’s first realignment since Minnesota and Columbus were added in 2000 - won’t come in just three weeks time.
Wheels need to be greased. Egos need to be stroked. Pockets need to be lined.
For instance, one major news outlet reported that the Detroit Red Wings have had a gentleman’s agreement with the league since 1993 to be offered first dibs to move to the Eastern Conference if the opportunity presented itself.
Detroit and Columbus are the only two teams in the West to play home games in the Eastern time zone. Every team in the Eastern Conference (with Atlanta) played home games in the Eastern time zone.
For fans in Detroit and Columbus, that means a lot of nights spent watching games that do not start until 10 o’clock or 10:30 during the regular season.
Detroit’s management team shot down the report that any such agreement exists.
For their sake, they’d probably rather move to the East - with easier travel and an easier run to the top of the standings every year.
For the rest of the teams in the Western Conference, while some would like to reduce their number of games against the Red Wings each season, they also realize that the Red Wings on the schedule puts more butts in the seats. Detroit draws better than any NHL team on the road, filling buildings are 99.8 percent capacity, according to ESPN.
It could be a relatively simple swap, if you want to keep things geographically tidy for next season. Move Nashville to the Southeast division and swap Winnipeg into the Central division.
Given a full year to reevaluate the road map, the NHL could decide to make more drastic moves.
If I were in charge, here’s what I would come up with:
*Keep 6 divisions, in two separate conferences
*Remove the seeding of division winners for playoffs
*Keep a balanced schedule in the conference (6 games vs. division, 4 games vs. conference, 18 vs. other conference)
(changes in italics)
1. New Jersey
2. New York Islanders
3. New York Rangers
4. Tampa Bay
5. St. Louis
2. Los Angeles
4. San Jose
Now, if the BOG’s wanted to keep the Eastern Conference entirely in one time zone, they could swap one of Columbus and/or Detroit with Nashville without throwing things too out of whack.
Teams like Detroit (as mentioned above) and Columbus are continually being crushed with a ridiculous travel schedule.
In realigning, there will be no real way to please everyone involved in the process. That’s why this will take time.
For now, let’s hear what you would do.
Still, for the Flyers, it may not be such a bad thing that the Thrashers could be moving to the Western Conference (eventually). The Flyers were just 1-1-2 against Atlanta last season, and just 1-5-2 against the Thrashers over the last two seasons.
(For the record, the Flyers have an 11-10-2 record in the city of Winnipeg)
As Globe and Mail columnist David Shoalts points out, the Thrashers would have made the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history this season if not for a stretch where they won just 4 times in 21 games.
Still, I agree with Shoalts’ overall opinion in the column: the Thrashers - or whatever name they will skate under in 2011-12 - are an up-and-coming product on the ice. This time, they’ll just be doing it in front of fans who will actually show up.
For the latest updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @DNFlyers
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