Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thoughts on the NHL's latest relocation

Funny, isn't it - how we hear that the league frowns on any team making news during the playoffs (especially during the Stanley Cup Finals) and yet on the eve of its championship series, the NHL publicly announces that the Atlanta Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg and playing in Manitoba next season. This is hardly replacing a bad market with a good one, if you were doing a tale of the tape between Atlanta and Winnipeg, well the edge in market would go to Atlanta while the edge in passion goes to Winnipeg. Somewhat astonishingly, commissioner Gary Bettman issued a warning to Winnpeg fans on the day that they're officially getting their team - basically saying they'd better sell out their games or else. Gee, couldn't the doom and gloom have waited? I didn't see Bettman warn any other of his 'chosen' markets like this when moving teams to areas that didn't even have hockey beforehand.

Granted, it would have been nice if Quebec had gotten a team back before Winnipeg...of all the markets that had teams taken from them, they're clearly the most capable of supporting a team, and I don't say that just because of the 2500 plus fans that showed up en masse to the Rock the last day of the regular season. Not that I really feel sorry for Atlanta either, Atlanta's never really been a great sports town for its other professional teams, why should I expect it to be a great hockey market despite the size of the city?

I do wonder how my life would have changed if the Devils had moved in '95 the way the diehard Thrasher fans will no doubt have to come to terms with no longer having a team of their own. Certainly there would have been no great memories from 2000, 2003 or even some of the recent regular seasons. At that point if the Devils had moved, I think I would have switched over to the Isles. After all, I would have still wanted to root for a local team and even at that point as a young hockey fan, there was no way I was going to switch to the Rangers or Flyers. Those days there really wasn't the type of wall-to-wall internet coverage there is now and I hadn't heard of Center Ice back then, so I think if the Devils were similarly threatened today I might feel differently. After all, it is getting easier every year to follow a team that's out of state.

That said, there's nothing like being at a big home game, and once all the players you rooted for in the uniform are gone a piece of you probably does leave as a fan. Ironically, the Isles have their own arena problems these days so if I ever were to be forced to switch allegiances it'd probably be to Buffalo, especially given they're usually an underdog that's easy to root for. Thankfully with the Devils' new arena and current ownership, moving shouldn't even be a threat for a very long time and I'll probably never have to experience that with my other teams (Mets and Jets). For all the grief they cause me, it's better to have them than not. Everyone needs their life diversion.

I already know one Devils fan who lives in Atlanta (and developed a soft spot for the Thrashers as a result) that's sworn off the NHL for good because of what happened and how it came about, the fact that the NHL jumped through hoops to save Phoenix while barely lifting a finger for Atlanta. Of course when the NHL locked out, many fans swore off the league then but judging by the increased numbers every year I doubt half the people who said they were going to drop the league followed through on their threat. I don't always like the league or the people that run it - just see some of my posts from the Summer of Kovy last year - but I'm not going to let the bureaucrats on First Avenue dilute my passion for the Devils either.

And what this means for the league long-term, who knows? It might be too late to re-align the divisions for next year, meaning Southeast teams like Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina and Washington will all have to make three trips to far-off Winnipeg next season - not to mention other East teams like the Devils and company will have to go twice. After that the landscape could also shift again, if Phoenix finally does go under and either Quebec, Kansas City or another market gets their team. I hope the league at least encourages the team to retain the Winnipeg Jets name but odds seem to favor the team being called the Manitoba Whatevers.

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