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Great news for Atlanta pro sports: Thrashers, Hawks ownership group settles six-year skirmish

Dec 22, 2010, 11:47 PM EDT

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On the ice, the Atlanta Thrashers are prospering a year or two ahead of schedule thanks in some part to what was clearly a shrewd trade to acquire (and properly use) big defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. The bulky defenseman keeps putting up points while goalie Ondrej Pavelec and the rest of team is playing better hockey than they ever did with their most famous player, Ilya Kovalchuk.

Yet off the ice, the Thrashers and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks have been mired in an ownership squabble that lasted six years and surely handcuffed the two pro sports franchises as they attempted to court the sometimes-fickle Atlanta market.

While GM Rick Dudley likely won’t get any more money to continue building the Thrashers because of the deal now (or possibly in the future), there’s at least renewed clarity. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Kristi E. Schwartz reports that the Atlanta Spirit finally settled their lawsuit with former partner Steve Belkin, who held a 30 percent stake in the two teams.

Part of the settlement includes seven of the group’s co-owners buying out former partner Steve Belkin’s 30 percent stake in the group. There are no new investors in line to replace Belkin.

Michael Gearon and Bruce Levenson will serve as managing partners of the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Thrashers and Philips Arena.

“I think if you talk to anyone in either organization, they will tell you that this lawsuit has had zero impact. Zero,” Levenson said. “At the end of the day, we had a business partner who we were in a dispute with and we have settled that dispute. It may sound a lot more complicated but that’s really what happened.”

The most important thing – for hockey fans, at least – is if this deal has any impact on the Thrashers remaining in Hotlanta. It sounds like the group is determined to keep the team in Atlanta, even though they acknowledged the fact that the team still faces some challenges when it comes to growing the sport in the area.

Meanwhile, the Thrashers had been targeted as a franchise that could possibly be relocated, with the Canadian cities of Hamilton, Quebec and Winnepeg among the list of possible new homes.

Gearon and Levenson have both said previously they were committed to keeping the team in Atlanta and told reporters Wednesday night that “no other changes are planned.”

While many fans are really hoping for a seventh team in Canada, the Thrashers have an interesting thing going here and look like they’re actually building a team with a clear focus for the first time … ever. They’ve even come up with a clever “Free Thrash” campaign to draw mainstream attention. I’d love to see this team develop a cult following in Atlanta and then maybe – just maybe – become the kind of non-traditional drawing power that the Dallas Stars were until the last few seasons in Texas.

Who knows what kind of impact this lawsuit will have (perhaps “zero” like the group claims), but hopefully the Thrashers will get a chance to keep this great momentum going.

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