Here’s a new hockey joke I’ve just invented:
Q. How do you get more Canadian teams in the NHL?
A. Start them in Atlanta.
Twice in NHL history, Atlanta had teams only to see them transferred to Canada because of bad attendance. Calgary and Winnipeg can both show gratitude to Atlanta after the NHL wore out its welcome there. Unfortunately for Canada, it will probably be a long time before the NHL returns to Atlanta. So Quebec Nordiques and Hamilton fans will have get their teams from other sources.
The transfer of the Thrashers to Winnipeg was the lowest blow in NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to improve the status of NHL hockey in the United States and get a better American television contract. First, it was the transfer of a team from a much bigger to a much smaller market. Second, it meant that his campaign to prove to American televison networks that NHL hockey was “an American game”, took a blow. (At a recent summit of NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL commissioners, Bettman commented that more young Americans were taking up hockey.) Third, it meant that a team was being transferred from a market that counts in American television ratings to a Canadian city where viewers cannot be included. And fourth, it raised questions about the wisdom of placing new NHL franchises in American markets that were unfamiliar with hockey.
And for Bettman to proclaim that the Winnipeg arena, the smallest one in the NHL and built for Winnipeg’s AHL team, the Manitoba Moose was suitable for the NHL was very surprising. But he had no choice. No investor wanted the Thrashers, at least one that would keep them playing in Atlanta. And bringing back the Winnipeg Jets got rid of one third of his Canadian critics. The pressure group, the “Manitoba Mythbusters” can now say, “Mission accomplished”.
But the fact that no American investor wanted the Thrashers and keep them in an American city was a clear sign of the NHL’s low status in the United States. There were no American rival offers to match Winnipeg. Even in potential good American markets like Seattle, Milwaukee, and Portland there was no interest. And in hindsight, when NHL expansion was eventually announced with a $500 million expansion fee, and $10 million “consideration fee”, American investors, including Bill Foley, the new owner of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, passed on a bargain.
On the other hand, Winnipeg had positive assets in its new owners, Dave Thomson and Mark Chipman. Thomson is the richest man in Canada so adding him to the NHL Board was almost a no-brainer. And Mark Chipman has been so popular, he was recently elected to the NHL Executive Committee. Having popular potential owners certainly made the transfer of the Thrashers to Winnipeg easier. Bettman himself and probably the majority of the NHL Board wants Winnipeg, Quebec and Hartford back in the league. He made a tour of all three cities back in 2010 and offered them terms for readmission to the NHL if they met certain conditions. That door still remains open for Quebec and Hartford.
But it’s doubtful that Bettman and the NHL Board wanted Winnipeg back in the league through relocation. The league lost $500 million in a potential expansion fee. And seeing investor indifference in the United States highlighted, reminded everyone, especially American televison networks, about the NHL’s low status in the United States. Winnipeg was used to bail out the NHL in an embarrassing situation. Imagine what would have happened if no one wanted the Thrashers. The league would have been forced to fold the team or own and operate them like they did in Phoenix.
The Atlanta debacle could be matched in Phoenix. The NHL was forced to own and operate the Coyotes for years while they searched for a new owner. They rejected a transfer of the Coyotes to maverick potential owner, Jim Balsille and another Canadian city, Hamilton. But now there is an arena crisis in Phoenix looming and the NHL and Glendale have publicly declared they are finished with one another when either the current lease expires or the Coyotes find a new home, either in the Phoenix area or in another city.
Now knowing that the NHL wants a $500 million expansion fee, will American investors, particularly owners of or builders of new arenas invite the Coyotes to their cities? Acquiring an NHL team through relocation instead of expansion seems to be a big “bargain”. But if no American investor wants the Coyotes, even in another better American market, at the cut-rate price of relocation, it will only serve to remind everyone, just like the Atlanta Thrashers did, that NHL hockey, compared with the NFL, the NBA and MLB, is still not “America’s game”.