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The Atlanta to Winnipeg Move & How it Affects the New Jersey Devils

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In between the conference finals and the Stanley Cup Finals (which will begin tonight), much of the attention within the NHL went to one franchise: the Atlanta Thrashers.  The ownership struggles within Atlanta Spirit boiled over to a point where they ultimately put the team up for sale and the only buyer was True North Sports and Entertainment - a group intent on putting a team in Winnipeg.  Without support from the city or some other buyer with a realistic plan to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta, the franchise will be moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba.  The purchase and move was announced on Tuesday.  It's not official official yet, the NHL Board of Governors still has to approve the move along with the new owners.  However, absent anything coming out of nowhere, it appears that Winnipeg will get a hockey team.

Personally, I'm not a fan of the move. The team's being moved from a large American market where hockey can still grow as a sport to a smaller Canadian market that's already into hockey. The team's going from the Philips Arena (capacity: 17,624) to the smaller MTS Centre (capacity: 15,010).  Winnipeg will be receiving a mediocre-at-best team that still needs significant help to become a playoff hopeful.  In my view, a lot of the excitement surrounding the move is fueled by nostalgia - and I don't know whether that's long or strong enough to support a NHL team for more than a few seasons.   The team really needs to A) get successful and quick; B) fill that MTS Centre enough to justify a new, larger building; and C) hope that the fans are plentiful and prosperous enough to keep buying tickets.

By the way, let's not forget why the Jets left Winnipeg in the mid-90s in the first place. Greg Wyshynski has this compliation of articles about the move at the time and basically the move was fueled by economic reasons and the city's refusal to kick in money for a new arena.  There's a lot of blame assessed at the commissioner.  However, it's not Gary Bettman's fault the owner was cheap and/or that the city wouldn't buy in, the team wasn't all that great and so they averaged a little over 13,000 people per game, or the Canadian dollar got weak.   And there's no guarantee that the latter two will be avoided this time.

But I'll stop writing like I'm some kind of a hater.  This is a New Jersey Devils site and I am a fan of the Devils.  Let's focus on this question: How does this move affect the Devils for the next season?  Does it change anything for them going forward?  Let's discuss it after the jump.

The first thing that came to my mind is more travel for the upcoming season. Given the lateness of this move, the NHL is holding off on realigning the divisions.  The Winnipeg Not-Jets are going to be in the Southeast Division in 2011-12 per Tom Gulitti's post on the move.  That means the Devils will go up to Manitoba twice on the road.  Assuming they'll be going there from Newark, that's about 1,640ish miles - a longer distance than 870ish miles between the Rock and the Philips Arena.  I don't think it'll be that big of a deal.  It's just two road games, after all.  Depending on how the schedule is set up, the Devils could visit the Winnipeg Whatevers in the middle of a road trip anyway. 

The second item that I thought of regarding the Winnipeg Time Machines is the eventual shift in competition in the East.  While conference realignment won't be discussed this season, it likely will for 2012-13.  To me, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for Winnipeg to still remain in the East when Nashville and Columbus are geographically closer - if not within - the eastern part of the continent.  Should the Predators get transferred to the Southeast, that division will become that much more difficult to play against between them, the Capitals, and the Lightning in coming seasons.  The Blue Jackets aren't as threatening, but I can't help but shake this feeling that they'd be more competitive outside of that brutal Central division.  This nothing more than speculation and no one can really take any other team lightly these days.  However, the East could become more difficult from within due to this move.

The third point has to do with a Moose that we know and appreciate when he's in front of the net: Johan Hedberg.  As an impending unrestricted free agent, Hedberg has the right to choose where he wants to go. While Hedberg played in New Jersey last season, his family stayed behind in Atlanta.  Back in April after the season, Gulitti reported that Hedberg would like to be near his family if he plays in the NHL next season.   A few weeks ago, this sentiment hasn't changed: his family will be where he plays next season - if he does at all.  Now that there's no team in Atlanta, much less a roster spot for a goaltender, questions abound. does this make it easier for the Devils to re-sign him?  Does it make it more likely he wants to stay closer by looking at either Florida team?  Does he just call it a career and live in Atlanta for a bit since his family's already settled there?  I can't imagine he'll want to move all the way up to Manitoba; so all this move really did was take away one option for him.  Take it as you will whether it's favorable for the Devils or not.

Speaking of, in a darker mood, now that there will be Winnipeg Exthrashers, the other 29 GMs in the league now have the option of going up to a player performing or behaving poorly and threaten to trade them to Winnipeg if they don't shape up.  Yes, even Edmonton has a target for a trade threat.    This only works if the player in question doesn't mind being in a city that's apparently in the middle of nowhere, though. But I imagine it'll be pretty effective in, say,  the middle of December or January.

At this point, the immediate reactions stopped and I thought more deeply about the business side and I hope the Devils are prepared to still contribute to revenue sharing for this moved team.  Sure, the Winnipeg Nostalgia Trippers may not be losing money hand over first like Atlanta may have.  At the same time, I'm not really seeing how they're going to bring in a lot of revenue. It's not a large arena and while the Canadian dollar is strong right now, the gates can only be so high.  I would suspect the league is also concerned and that's why Bettman made a point of it to say the following at the press conference (quote from Reuters Canada):

"Selling 13,000 season tickets will send a message to the NHL board of governors," Bettman said. "And, to be candid, this isn't going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night."

To their credit, True North agrees and will make the effort to meet a commitment of 13,000 season ticket holders.  However, check out this Puck Daddy article by Sean Leahy breaking down the cost of season tickets.  If you're a Winnipeg Possible Moose fan and you want to be one of the 13,000, then get ready to splash the cash.  You won't be buying a season ticket, you'll be buying season tickets for three to five seasons.  The per game prices may be amenable (Aside to the Devils: Release your prices so I can compare them) and payment plans may vary, but the team's asking for a lot right away.  It's understandable because if True North can get that many commitments, it'll lessen the nostalgia/honeymoon effect - there will be a set fan base for a few seasons.  This will please the Board of Governors.  At the same time, it's worrisome when you got even basic "Yay! A team is Winnipeg again!" articles like this one in the Globe and Mail noting that the prices to check out the team may be a tough sell at the end.  (h/t: Behind the Net)  So if the team falls short, these concerns won't be allayed.

Of course, even if the MTS Centre is full every night (and if so, good luck in asking for a new arena in a few years, True North - I suspect the honeymoon will long be over by then), they nor the league can control the Canadian dollar. As of right now, it's strong at 1.03 USD for 1 CDN per X-Rates' historical look up.   If that drops in value relative to the American dollar, like it was back on this date in 1995 (.728 USD for 1 CDN) or 2002 (.654 USD for 1 CDN) or 2005 (.801 USD for 1 CDN); then revenues at the gate will suffer regardless. The NHL is still a gate-driven league, and so that's a very big problem. That makes it more likely the rest of the league has to contribute to revenue sharing. That's more money out of True North's pocket  That clearly affects the Devils' business and every other team in the league, while it hurts Winnipeg (and the other Canadian teams) more.  Pro-tip for Winnipeg supporters: pray that exchange rate doesn't go down too harshly; or, pray that True North won't mind spending more when it does.

The last and most important point about how this move affects the Devils are the lessons coming from this Atlanta-to-Winnipeg move.  The market can be big, the arena can be large enough, the players may like the locale, and it may be even be watchable hockey with a bright outlook.  But horrible management can ruin a market from growing and ultimately lead to a situation like this.   This move in my opinion lays at the feet of two positions: those in charge of hockey operations and the ownership.  The former is obvious to us as fans. Atlanta made the playoffs only once in their existence as the Thrashers; they had excellent players in Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa, but they failed to get proper depth or address their needs to become a consistently competitive team.  This, we know.

What gets lost is how bad ownership can pervade every aspect of the organization.  Check out what Hedberg said about the owners to Tom Gulitti.  Check out what the always-opinionated Bobby Holik had to say about the owners to Gulitti.  On Twitter, Dmitry Chesnokov noted that Ilya Kovalchuk laid the blame at ownership.  When the internal beefs, squabbles, and general disinterest by Atlanta Spirit has caused former Thrashers to point them out, then it's pretty bad.  It also affected the business side.  Beyond the reality that the franchise was so poorly run that no one wanted to pick up the pieces from Atlanta Spirit.  I don't wonder why the NHL didn't fight for this. What would they be fighting for exactly? To keep Spirit involved? To hope the city would care? It's this lack of interest driven by the team's ineptness from the top-down that created this situation.  But it goes deeper than that - let me provide a simple example. Check out this post at Puck Daddy to learn that Atlanta Thrashers sales people were still selling tickets on the day of the announcement that the team will move to Winnipeg.  Laugh because it's funny, cry because it's true. 

That's not on the players, or the coaches, and definitely not the fans.  Matt Gunning of Bird Watchers Anonymous and the many other Thrashers faithful deserved far better. And there would have been many more people like Matt, many more fans willing to spend their money and time on a hockey team if the owners cared about the team enough to have concepts like accountability and getting the right people instead of letting Don Waddell hang around for years.  Hockey could have been something in Atlanta.  The Thrashers could have been a team worth watching with better management both from hockey operations and overall ownership.  Instead, the conventional wisdom will be that hockey "doesn't work" in Atlanta when the reality is it never had a fair chance - "thanks" to Atlanta Spirit and those before them.

Sure, some markets are more resilient than others; just look at Edmonton.  But just because the fans aren't leaving away in droves, that doesn't mean they'll accept garbage forever - they too will be driven away if things don't improve. Incompetency from the highest levels of a franchise only serve to undercut the team and the league as a whole. This happened in Atlanta, but it could have easily happened elsewhere. And it still could. 

Being the owner means more than just signing the checks. It means being sincere and passionate for what you own.  It means holding those running the team accountable, and getting the appropriate personnel to run the various departments.  It means ensuring that the team is at least competetive enough so fans don't just watch the team and think "why am I wasting my time."  Understand the situation you're in city-wise, arena-wise, economy-wise and team-wise instead of making threats about moving if you don't get something from the city or hoping the exchange rate holds up or not being prepared to go it alone on the arena or standing by as terrible GMs continue to make the team worse without any repercussions.  You know, like, the Winnipeg Jets.  It means not letting he team wither.  When that gets lost, that's how these messes happen - at least, from my standpoint it does.

Jeff Vanderbeek and his group that still wants to own the Devils would be wise to heed that.   It certainly affects them.  As it does for every owner of every professional team. We'll see if True North gets it right. I'm sure Gabe Desjardens at Behind the Net will be on the team if they don't.  Otherwise, we may have to call this team the Winnipeg Kansas Citizens. Or something like that.