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Atlanta Thrashers Sold To Manitoba Company

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Atlanta Thrashers Sold To Manitoba Company

Sports

Atlanta Thrashers Sold To Manitoba Company

Atlanta Thrashers Sold To Manitoba Company

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The Atlanta Thrashers are no more. It was announced Tuesday that the professional hockey team has been sold to a group in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Michele Norris speaks with Scott Burnside, national hockey writer for ESPN.com, about the sale.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Hockey fans in Winnipeg, Manitoba, are celebrating in the streets today.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

NORRIS: They're cheering because the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg. The city has been without an NHL team since 1996, when the Jets headed south for Phoenix. And for more on all this, we're joined by Scott Burnside. He covers hockey for ESPN.com, and he's in Vancouver to cover the Stanley Cup Finals, but he happens to live in Atlanta, which means it's doubly good that we're talking to you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SCOTT BURNSIDE: Yes, I come at it from two ends, both as a hockey writer and as a resident of Atlanta who, you know, a resident no longer with an NHL team.

NORRIS: Well, why are the Thrashers leaving Atlanta? What's up?

BURNSIDE: Well, I mean, sort of the simple answer is that poor ownership in Atlanta helped to destroy what should have been a vibrant hockey - now albeit a non-traditional hockey market in America.

But, you know, it's a team that never won a single playoff game. They went to the playoffs just once. There was very little connection with the community, no grassroots hockey programs to speak of, no fostering of the real kind of connection that is so important, whether it's a hockey team or any pro sports franchise, to thrive.

There was none of that, and so it was a very shallow relationship and years of poor performance ultimately led to an ownership group that wanted to get out from mounting debt. And the fans in Winnipeg are the benefactors of that.

NORRIS: And this may sound like a little bit of deja vu because it's not the first time a hockey team has left Atlanta. In the 1980s, the Flames also left for Calgary.

BURNSIDE: Yes, now in that situation, a little bit different. The revenue streams at the previous arena in Atlanta did not generate enough revenue to sustain a team moving forward. There wasn't the possibility of, at that time, of building a bigger, more lucrative place to play.

So that's why the team ended up moving the first time. It is a little bit of deja vu, sadly, for that small hockey base in Atlanta.

NORRIS: You know, starting in the 1990s, the NHL expanded into the southern part of the United States, with teams in North Carolina and Nashville, Florida, Phoenix. But that experiment has not exactly been an across-the-board failure. What's the difference between, say, the Thrashers in Atlanta and the Predators in a town like Nashville?

BURNSIDE: Well, you mentioned some of those non-traditional markets. You know, the Tampa Bay Lightning won a Stanley Cup in '04. Carolina won a cup in '06. They've been to the Stanley Cup final. They consistently put a product on the ice that fans are able to relate to, and they have taken great care in those communities, for the most part, to foster that relationship.

And if those teams left, if the Carolina Hurricanes up and moved, that would be a tremendous blow to that community. Again in Atlanta, where that bond never truly existed, this team will leave a community without really leaving a ripple, and that's a real shame.

NORRIS: But having a deep hockey culture and a large fan base sometimes is not enough. Winnipeg lost its team back in 1996. Why is the league so sure that Winnipeg can sustain a team this time around?

BURNSIDE: Well, I mean, there are no guarantees. And, you know, it is a small building. They'll have to retrofit it. It is a small community. It's a very small corporate community.

Now, they have ownership that has extremely deep pockets, and so maybe sustaining losses on an annual basis won't matter to them. But the reality is this is not a guaranteed success in Winnipeg. They didn't have ownership when the team first moved to Phoenix that was willing to help to build a new arena that was critical to the team's future there. And that's the reason that team left. It was not a success the first time around in many ways.

NORRIS: What happens to that hockey stadium in Atlanta?

BURNSIDE: Well, I suspect if you wanted to book in for a haircutting festival or a tractor pull or a...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Disney on ice.

BURNSIDE: Rodeo. You'll have - I'll tell you, there are now, as of today, 41 extra dates available. So you wouldn't have any trouble booking into Philips Arena right now.

NORRIS: Scott Burnside, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BURNSIDE: Anytime.

NORRIS: Scott Burnside is a national hockey writer for ESPN.com.

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