The National Hockey League's ambitious expansion into the Sun Belt during the 1990s took its first backward step Tuesday with news that the 11-year-old Atlanta Thrashers are set to move to Winnipeg – one of the Canadian cities that lost its team to that southern binge 15 years ago.
Now, with other franchises in sunny climes struggling, the question facing the league is whether the Winnipeg move marks the beginning of a great retrenchment, with professional hockey moving closer to its northern roots, or whether this is merely a one-off event.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman warned against broader interpretations of the Winnipeg move, which will become official only if approved by the NHL board of governors on June 21. "We will continue to resist moving franchises, and other communities shouldn't be reading anything into what's happening here into any other situation," he said.
Yet to many fans, the return to Winnipeg – which saw its Jets move to Phoenix in 1996 and become the Coyotes – marks a necessary shift of the sport's center of gravity northward.
"Hockey is back where it matters and is important," former Calgary Flames general manager Craig Button told the NHL Network's "NHL On The Fly." "And there's no better time to come back to place where hockey has been important."
In the 1990s, the NHL sought to grow the sport by expanding the game into to new cities in the South, the home of many northern expats, burgeoning populations, and large media markets. New or relocated franchises in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, and Texas marked the future of the sport, the thinking went. At last, the ice-free South would cotton on to the gladiatorial aspects of the fast-paced sport.
On the ice, at least, the switch has worked. Among the teams that have won a Stanley Cup in the 18 years since the last Canadian champion: Tampa Bay, Dallas, Anaheim, Denver, and Carolina (Raleigh, N.C.).
Off the ice, however, the financial reasons for the shift have largely evaporated. The 2004-05 lockout resulted in a strong league salary cap that has held down costs, allowing well-run teams in small markets like Winnipeg to compete. Moreover, the Canadian dollar has strengthened, meaning that Canadian teams are no longer taking in money in weak Canadian dollars and then paying it out to players in strong US currency.
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.
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."