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Atlanta Spirit hopes to avoid moving Thrashers in sale, still speaking with two interested parties

Mar 17, 2011, 9:19 PM EDT

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When we last checked in on the Atlanta Thrashers sale situation, a heightened “sense of urgency” from owners The Atlanta Spirit spurred conversations with three potential owners hoping to keep the team in Georgia. In many ways, the Thrashers sale has slipped under the radar – and been put on hold – because of the Phoenix Coyotes’ conundrum. Yet much like the Coyotes, the Thrashers must face the very real possibility of relocation.

That’s not to say that relocation is an absolute certainty, though. The Canadian Press passes along word that Thrashers owners continue to discuss the possibility of selling the team only to people who would keep the franchise in Atlanta.

While the number of groups decreased from three to two, the notion that there’s at least some activity provides a slight reason for optimism for Atlanta-area hockey fans. Despite the fact that the Atlanta Spirit are encumbered by the fact that they own two struggling professional sports franchises – they also run the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks – negotiations have only involved the Thrashers, so the deal shouldn’t be excessively complicated.

That being said, having some unnamed interested parties dipping their toes in the water is one thing, but getting a deal done is a whole other ballgame. Especially regarding a team that still draws only tepid attention from sports fans, as the Thrashers boast the third-worst attendance averages in the NHL (according to the Canadian Press).

Ownership group member Michael Gearon, Jr. had an interesting response when he was asked when the group might give up on its goal of selling only to an owner who would keep the team in Atlanta.

Asked last month when he might give up on finding a new ownership for the Thrashers to remain in Atlanta and turn his search to those wishing to move the team, Gearon said “That’s a Gary Bettman question.”

Bettman, the NHL commissioner, has said he wants the team to remain in Atlanta. Bettman said last month any problems with the Thrashers “ultimately will have to be dealt with.”

Gearon and Levenson have said they are willing to retain minority shares of the Thrashers or sell all their interests in the team.

When it comes to the fate of both the Thrashers and Coyotes franchises, it all really might come down to how Bettman answers such questions. The NHL keeps delaying such choices – with reason – but eventually they will have to bite the bullet and make a decision that will have a large impact on the makeup of the league.

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