The Franchise Shuffle

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 21: Fans rally outside Philips Arena to keep the Atlanta Thrashers based in Atlanta on May 21, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. It has been reported the Thrashers may relocate to Winnipeg, Canada. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The season isn't even officially over yet but the Southeast Division already looks dramatically different than it did when the playoffs started. In a move that is sure to thrill hockey traditionalists (aka certain provincial Canadians who are vehemently opposed to actual growth of the sport they profess to love), the Atlanta Thrashers are going to be sold and moved to Winnipeg. So as it stands right now, the Tampa Bay Lightning's opposition within the division consists of the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers...and the Winnipeg Maybe The Jets But Probably Nots. 

That's right, Winnipeg. As in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as in 49° 53' 0" N / 97° 10' 0" W, as in 2,024 miles from Tampa Bay as in 1,127 miles farther away than Washington DC.

Of course,that's subject to change and the NHL plans to re-align after the 2011-12 season anyway, when Winnipeg would be replaced by either Nashville or Columbus in the Southeast, so it's only temporary. But what exactly is permanent anymore?

The expansion Flames left Atlanta after eight years to move to Calgary in 1980. The league put another expansion team, the Thrashers, in Atlanta in 1999-00. Now that team is leaving for Winnipeg, a city that lost their team, the Jets, to Phoenix where they became the Coyotes, after 17 NHL seasons. That's two markets that will have hosted four franchises between the two of them in just over 30 years.

Granted, things weren't great in Atlanta, but is Winnipeg supposed to be the answer to all of that team's problems? Sure, fans there have been clamoring for the return of the NHL since the Jets left, but between the 1989-90 season and the time they left for Phoenix after '96, they never averaged  more than 13,550 a game. That's about what the Thrashers averaged the past two seasons, although their average attendance was closer to 15,000 the five seasons prior. 

No, a more likely answer is that Winnipeg was the best option available (short of jumping through the kinds of hoops they continue to jump through on behalf of the Phoenix Coyotes for some reason, of course). The fact is that there are no new markets left to conquer and so teams are forced to re-cycle when they re-locate, hoping, sometimes irrationally, that whatever didn't work last time won't be a factor this time. And that's not unique to the NHL:

  • The current incarnation of one of the NFL's iconic franchises, the Cleveland Browns, is actually an expansion franchise that replaced the original Browns who became the Ravens and moved to Baltimore, replacing the Colts who had moved to Indianapolis. Their expansion cousins, the Texans were put in Houston to replace the departed Houston Oilers who moved to Tennessee and became the Titans.
  • The Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals in 2005, becoming the third MLB team to call Washington DC home in the last 50 years. Interest in baseball had waned in Montreal by the time they moved, however the Expos were outdrawing the New York Mets as recently as 1996.
  • The NBA has put two different expansion franchises into Charoltte, NC since 1988. And while the NBA did find a new market to move into in Oklahoma City, they uprooted the Supersonics from Seattle, where they were fairly consistent contendors who drew well, to do it. It's almost a foregone conclusion that the NBA will return to Seattle one way or another in the near future.

So while there's no doubt that Atlanta hockey fans are mourning the loss of the Thrashers right now (and if you want to help make a statement to the Board of Governors on their behalf, you can sign this petition posted by our friends at Bird Watchers Anonymous), when you take recent sports history and all the positive attributes the city still has to offer (a viable arena, a population of over 4 million and the nation's 7th largest TV market), it wouldn't be the most shocking development to see them get a third shot at making it work.

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