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Thrashers owners tell fans they’re sorry it didn’t work out in Atlanta

May 31, 2011, 1:56 PM EDT

Michael Gearon, Bruce Levenson AP

While the Thrashers are officially being sold to True North Sports and Entertainment and moved to Winnipeg next season, there’s the other side of the story that’s out there. That part of the story comes from the Thrashers owners in the Atlanta Spirit Group, Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon.

While the press conference was going on in Winnipeg to euphoric cries of joy, Atlanta Spirit was quietly expressing their own version of sadness and dismay at the financial mess they put themselves in and forced their hand into selling to True North.

Levenson and Gearon posted a letter to fans in Atlanta on their website to express what they’re feeling as they sweat out their final days before the NHL Board of Governors meet on June 21st to officially approve the sale. Pardon us if we’re not feeling the sincerity they’re trying to push on the fans.

As many of you know, for some time we have been seeking a buyer for the team or a partner willing to join with us in continuing to fund the team. We hired an investment banking firm to seek out potential investors with the expressed goal of finding someone who would keep the team here in Atlanta. In recent months, we openly indicated a growing urgency to secure assistance in off-setting our operating losses in hopes that our public plea would produce investors who, to that point, had eluded us.

After extensive effort, nobody has come forward. As a result, we had no choice but to explore the investment option presented to us by the NHL in the form of True North Sports and Entertainment.

Their push to find local owners only became public in the last few months and saw the likes of baseball star Tom Glavine and former NHLer Anson Carter come out with hopes of assembling investors together to buy the team. Those plans didn’t work out for any number of reasons be it a lack of suitors willing to part with their money or Atlanta Spirit Group unwilling to see things out.

Levenson and Gearon made this mess and did little if anything to clean it up. Their efforts to help make the Thrashers look as unappealing to other potential buyers in the seven years they owned the team worked out well enough so that they could cut a sweet deal with True North. Everything works out nicely for them, meanwhile the fans get screwed and the city of Atlanta loses their second NHL team in 31 years, a truly unbelievable accomplishment of failure.

Atlanta Spirit Group should be embarrassed with how they handled the Thrashers and for treating the team as a side thought. Instead, they’ll take the money and run while Canada can celebrate the return of a franchise to within their borders. We’re happy for Winnipeg here, don’t get us wrong, but seeing Thrashers fans get shown the door in such a way is low. Perhaps not as low as the Baltimore Colts in the NFL, but this ranks up with one of the uglier ownership fiascoes of modern times.

  1. govtminion - May 31, 2011 at 2:12 PM

    Well, that should make the fans feel a lot better about the whole thing, right? They’re apologizing, so that should wrap the whole thing up nicely and no one’s feelings are hurt. Everyone wins!

    Can I get a facepalm, people?

  2. animals1977 - May 31, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    Whatever. This is what Gary Bettman gets, for running his mouth as little as two months ago and saying, “”We are not looking to get back to Winnipeg or Quebec any time soon and I get concerned about expectations being raised”. Today, that two-faced POS says this … “”It’s nice to be back in Winnipeg after all these years,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who attended the news conference.

    Fact is, Gary – your lame dream of putting hockey in the Bible Belt and in the south in general, has failed. As a die-hard Nordiques fan, the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg bodes very well for Quebec. As soon as the new arena is built, the Nordiques will return and it will be awesome.

    • sknut - May 31, 2011 at 3:23 PM

      Who will come to Quebec? I heard Phoenix is next team likely to move and I think Seattle is front in line or Kansas City. Those old Nordique sweaters were pretty sweat though.

      • sasksleddog - May 31, 2011 at 5:08 PM

        Do either Seattle or Kansas City have a facility or plans and the financing to build a facility? Quebec City has the plans and financing in place to build one, the only stumbling block is a controversy over the arena management contract. Do either Seattle or Kansas City have potential ownership? Quebec City does.

        Kansas City also has a problem in that they had a team – the Kansas City Scouts – which in two years in the league drew an average of 8,200 people in a 17,000 seat arena. Who’s to say that this time would be better. Meanwhile the Nordiques regularly filled a 15,000 seat arena for 15 years. The only thing that beat them was the (then) low value of the Canadian dollar and the inflated player salaries. The Canadian dollar now trades about the US dollar and the NHL now has a salary cap. Bring the Nords back!!

      • Joe Yerdon - May 31, 2011 at 5:14 PM

        sasksleddog:

        Yes, Kansas City has an arena built and ready waiting for any franchise to move there called the Sprint Center. It’s an 18,000+ seat modern facility. Seattle does not have a modern arena, only Key Arena which the NBA felt was unsuitable for their needs after years. Seattle also wouldn’t build the Sonics a new place which is why their owner moved them to Oklahoma City.

        Quebec doesn’t have a new arena (yet) and may or may not have the ownership types ready to make things work. That all hinges upon whether or not they get a new arena built. Unless Quebec City has a new arena, they’re not a viable option, same for Seattle.

      • sasksleddog - May 31, 2011 at 6:09 PM

        Joe, I see your point. about Quebec City. The funding for the arena is in place as I’ve said. There are several likely ownership groups for a team, most notably one headed by media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau. Is there a figure in Kansas City who is ready to step up?

        By the way, I have a suspicion that it will be sooner rather than later that Quebec City AND Kansas City (and maybe even Hamilton Ontario) will have teams – that’s how badly I think the NHL’s “southern strategy” has failed.

    • whatagreatfootballmind - May 31, 2011 at 3:50 PM

      What did you want Gary Bettman to say? Did you want him to say in Winnpeg today, “What the hell are we doing here?” or “Damn it came down to Winnipeg because we have no change in any other market?” Of course he was going to say it’s nice to back in Winnipeg.

      To me, it sounds like your jealous the ‘Peg got a team and Quebec didn’t. Don’t hold sour grapes Winnpeg has an NHL ready arena to play in. The fact is, Winnipeg was ready to get a team and Quebec sat on their hands.

      • awdftw - Jun 1, 2011 at 5:50 PM

        is quebec a french speaking only city? I mean do you quebecors look down towards english speaking citizens? Is that why eric lindros refused to play since he HAD to learn french? As am american and if that is true I wouldn’t want to play for quebec.

    • tommytd - May 31, 2011 at 7:59 PM

      Gary Bettman’s best years are behind him. For the good of the game, he should be replaced (and take Roger Goodell with him).

  3. goforthanddie - May 31, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    Ehh. If it was public knowledge the team was available, maybe the Atlanta people should’ve stepped up sooner/bigger. I’m sure these guys didn’t say “Let’s screw Atlanta out of hockey”. A deal needed doing, an offer was on the table. That’s how business works.

    • govtminion - May 31, 2011 at 3:39 PM

      Easy to say, until it’s your team packing the trucks…

      • whatagreatfootballmind - May 31, 2011 at 3:51 PM

        As a Minnesota fan, I know how that goes.

  4. animals1977 - May 31, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    Not sure who will come to Quebec. The only reason they left, is because their arena was built in the 1940’s and seated only 9,000 people. The owner prematurely freaked out and sold the team to Colorado investors, before he could line up investors in Quebec. The fact that they won the Stanley Cup their first year as the Avalanche, was a huge slap in the face to Nordiques fans.

    Even a bigger joke, is the fact that the Avs own the name Nordiques and any new Quebec team, will have to buy it back, which they intend to do. Damn right the sweaters are sweet. I still wear mine all the time.

    • whatagreatfootballmind - May 31, 2011 at 3:54 PM

      Are you sure they are owned by the Avalanche? Most teams rights go back to the NHL when they move. the Jets are owned by the NHL. I believe the North Stars are owned by the NHL, Minnesota wanted the old logo with the N and and * but the NHL would not allow it with Dallas being named the Stars. Thus you got the Wild logo with the shooting star in it. Whalers are owned by the NHL. The NHL holds all the right to the teams that are moved. That is how you can still order merchandise from those teams.

  5. animals1977 - May 31, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    greatfootballmind – Great comments. I’m not sour because Winnipeg got a team back and Quebec didn’t. In fact, this all bodes very well for Quebec anyways.

    You could very well be right – perhaps the NHL does own the names. I thought the teams acquired them with the purchase and still owned them, whether they used the name or not.

  6. whatagreatfootballmind - May 31, 2011 at 5:24 PM

    I only know that because Minnesota is trying to get a Winter Classic. But that won’t happen until the savior Mikael Granlund comes. Rumor has it Minnesota is trying to play Dallas in that game and would be wearing the old N with * North Star jerseys. I believe they are trying to get Dallas to wear the Oakland Seals jersey that game who became part of the North Stars all tying it together.

  7. whatagreatfootballmind - May 31, 2011 at 5:24 PM

    I only know that because Minnesota is trying to get a Winter Classic. But that won’t happen until the savior Mikael Granlund comes. Rumor has it Minnesota is trying to play Dallas in that game and would be wearing the old N with * North Star jerseys. I believe they are trying to get Dallas to wear the Oakland Seals jersey that game who became part of the North Stars all tying it together.

  8. umrguy42 - May 31, 2011 at 5:37 PM

    My real question is, is the NHL gonna help out my Blues find an owner who’ll keep them there, or are St. Louis fans going to get screwed (yet again)?

    • sasksleddog - May 31, 2011 at 7:53 PM

      Saskatoon is still waiting for our Blues! ;-)

      (Very big joke for people who are old enough to know the history of the St Louis Blues.)

  9. animals1977 - May 31, 2011 at 5:43 PM

    Well, just my opinion, but hockey belongs in the north. Let the south have their NASCAR. Those people barely know what a hat trick is, what the blue line means, much less what a puck looks like. I’m from the Chicago area and do like the Blackhawks, but as a Packers fan in football, I appreciate the small markets being able to have a team. So, I adopted the Nordiques in the late 80’s and have never given up on them and never will. I have all the faith in the world, that one day, they will return.

    • killabri - May 31, 2011 at 6:04 PM

      I think that the south has expanded to all the markets it realistically can, and to push their luck beyond Nashville would be insane. As someone who lives in the state of Florida, I can tell you that I know probably 10 Lightning fans (not counting myself) and 1 Panthers fan who watch the teams on any sort of a consistent basis and/or buy merchandise and tickets. The Lightning’s playoff run should help them at the ticket window next year, though their attendance was not bad by any stretch of the imagination.

      Looking solely at the attendance numbers, all the southern teams save for the now relocated Thrashers drew at least 600,000 fans this year with the Lightning getting 700,000. Not awful, but not great either.

    • tommytd - May 31, 2011 at 8:02 PM

      Well stated…

  10. killabri - May 31, 2011 at 5:49 PM

    Interesting perspectives on the Quebec political mumbo jumbo holding up an arena. If the league goes back to Canada with the Phoenix franchise, I’d think that Quebec would be the first choice and really the last viable market that we know of right now in the Great White North. You have to have an arena to play in, though.

    The Sprint Center was opened in 2007, so it certainly fits the bill. If I’m the NHL, I’d try scheduling a preseason game or two at the facility (Blackhawks – Blues seems to make the most sense) as sort of a trial run to see how things go there and what the response is. While I realize that one, or really any, preseason games being there isn’t an accurate barometer of what the viability of the market is, you have to start somewhere and having actual live hockey there is as good a place as any. A regular season game would be more ideal, but you’d have to get the teams to actually agree to play at a neutral site and I doubt you’d have any luck with that.

    If the Thrashers episode has shown us anything, it’s that even the best locations can be ruined by bad ownership. Where ever the Phoenix franchise ends up, its next owners need to be far better than its current ones.

  11. bbk1000 - May 31, 2011 at 6:03 PM

    Winnipeg fans can support them for years with season tickets. When they get popular they will up prices and/or go the PSL route to shut the real fans out. This is life, we have seen it in MLB, NFL and the NBA.

  12. animals1977 - May 31, 2011 at 6:34 PM

    Now I’m reading lame articles such as, “Winnipeg is too small of a market to succeed in today’s NHL”. What???

    Um … if the city of Green Bay (population 100,000) and the Packers can win the Super Bowl and yes – they don’t even HAVE an owner, in today’s NFL – by far the biggest pro sports league in America, then with the right people in the front office, good coaching and scouting staffs in place, etc. – it doesn’t matter how big the market or city is – any team can win with the right people and players.

  13. crkreg - May 31, 2011 at 7:27 PM

    Bottom line is that Gary Betteman is a fool and hockey will be better off when he steps down.

    • tommytd - May 31, 2011 at 8:04 PM

      I’m with you on that one. He needs to go…and take Colin Campbell along too!

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