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Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg: Beginning of the end for 'Sun Belt' NHL?

The Atlanta Thrashers have been sold to a business group that intends to move the team to Winnipeg next season. The looming question is whether the move will set off a chain reaction.

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Indeed, Winnipeg now offers something that Atlanta decidedly doesn't: Local buzz and a sold-out arena. The six Canadian teams in the NHL each sold at least 99.3 percent of their available seats this season – despite the fact that two of the teams, the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers, were among the worst five teams in the league. Atlanta, by contrast, sold only 72.6 percent of its seats – the third-worst figure in the NHL – despite being in the playoff hunt for much of the season.

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The $170 million deal was met with elation and spontaneous street hockey games in Winnipeg. In Atlanta, it was a bitter end to a team stymied by problems on the ice and constant ownership troubles. The Thrashers made the playoffs only once, and were promptly swept in the first round by the New York Rangers.

More moves ahead?

The Thrashers move immediately raised hopes, especially in Quebec City, of scoring another Canadian NHL franchise to replace the Nordiques, which relocated to Denver in 1995 and immediately won a Stanley Cup. Ironically, it is Winnipeg's former team, the Phoenix Coyotes, that looks most likely to move. The team has been administered by the league since entering bankruptcy in 2009.

While the Florida Panthers, based in Miami, continue to have difficulty building a fan base, there have been notable success stories in the South. Carolina has capitalized on the success of its cup-winning team, in part by promoting local traditions like tailgating. In addition, the prospects the league more broadly are rising: The NHL just inked a major 10-year TV deal with NBC Sports, and both gate receipts and TV viewership are up.

The Winnipeg move is simply a part of the league looking to build from a stronger position, says David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"I don't know whether it's a retrenchment to the north – it's more an understanding that the league has had franchises in unsustainable markets for several years, which suggests the the league needs to recalibrate and make sure that franchises are in the most appropriate markets," he says.

For Atlanta, however, the news set off a bit of sports soul-searching. "Is Atlanta a lousy sports city?" Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Mark Bradley asked. The city has now lost two NHL franchises, the first one being the Atlanta Flames in 1980, which headed north to Calgary.

"The reality is, passionate sports towns do not allow this to happen," writes Thrashers fan Todd Galucki on AJC.com.

Commenter Dawg Tired saw it another way: "Hockey belongs in Canada, or, at least, above the Mason-Dixon Line."

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