Right Back Where We Started From

Ooh, and it’s alright and it’s coming home,
We gotta get right back to where we started from.
Love is good, love can be strong,
We gotta get right back to where we started from.

-Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From” (from the Slap Shot motion picture soundtrack)

Hockey fans in Manitoba are rightfully in a celebratory mood today, with the official announcement that the Atlanta Thrashers will be relocated to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 NHL season. It was 15 long years ago that the NHL’s Jets relocated to Phoenix, crushing the hearts of a very dedicated fan base in the name of increasing the league’s television footprint in the United States.

Phoenix is the 12th-largest television market in the U.S., and the league’s cognoscenti felt that putting as many teams as possible in large U.S. television markets was the key to securing a lucrative television deal. This was a core reason why the NHL placed expansion/relocated teams into cities like Anaheim, Dallas, Phoenix, Nashville, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Raleigh, and Atlanta throughout the 1990s. Some of those teams have enjoyed a fair amount of success, but by and large the results haven’t been close to what was hoped for.

The Jets (now Coyotes) have struggled mightily in Phoenix, and the City of Glendale (a suburb of Phoenix) has approved a $25 million payment to keep the Coyotes in Arizona for another year. Meanwhile, the Thrashers – much like the Flames before them – were never able to capture the hearts of Georgia’s sports fans, and it comes as no surprise that they’re relocating to Canada just as the Flames did.

Meanwhile, the six remaining Canadian NHL clubs have emerged as an economic force, generating far more revenue than their collective market sizes would suggest they should. And making the Thrashers’ move even easier for the NHL to swallow is the recent 10-year television contract signed with NBC/Versus. With their television rights locked up for a decade, the league could afford to focus less attention on market size and more on fan interest.

Whereas the Thrashers struggled to fill their building with fans, it’s a near certainty that games will regularly sell out in Winnipeg at the MTS Centre. And while that building’s 15,000-seat capacity makes it the smallest arena in the NHL, the local revenues should easily surpass those generated by the Thrashers.

Looking at this from a pure hockey perspective, the Winnipeg fans have quite a lot to look forward to. Whereas the Coyotes are an aging team lacking a talented young core, the Thrashers have some really nice building blocks to work with.

First and foremost is budding star Evander Kane, a talented young power forward with the potential to emerge as a top-tier NHL star in 2011-12. Alexander Burmistrov acquitted himself quite nicely as a 19-year-old rookie, and his best is surely ahead of him. Andrew Ladd finally began to make good on the promise that spurred the Hurricanes to select him fourth overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, while defenseman Dustin Byfuglien has the potential to be an impact offensive defenseman a la former Jets star Phil Housley (albeit far larger). And young netminder Ondrej Pavelec has shown enough promise thus far to generate plenty of excitement about his future.

In addition, top prospects Carl Klingberg and Patrice Cormier are en route, and the Thrashers have the seventh overall pick in the quite deep 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

While the Thrashers might not be a Cup contender in 2011-12, they’re a good bet to reach the postseason, particularly if True North chairman Mark Chipman approves some roster upgrades. It’s uncertain whether NHL stars will be inclined to voluntarily relocate to Winnipeg, so perhaps the best options will come via trade, with the Rangers’ Marian Gaborik one very interesting possibility. And of course, though the chances are slim, it sure would be neat to see former Jets superstar Teemu Selanne suit up for one final season in Winnipeg.

The Winnipeg (Jets?) will likely have a very arduous travel schedule in 2011-12, as they’ll probably remain in the Southeast Division for one season before the league realigns. There is rampant speculation about how that realignment will go down, and the instability of the Phoenix Coyotes will likely play a key role in the discussions, for the league would certainly prefer to realign once rather than twice.

The most logical solution would be to move the Predators into the Southeast Division, the Winnipeg team into the Northwest Division, and the Canucks into the Pacific division. However, the Wings’ and Blue Jackets’ desire to be moved into the Eastern Conference – combined with the uncertainty surrounding franchises in Phoenix, Ft. Lauderdale and on Long Island – could dramatically alter the league’s plans where realignment is concerned.

It’s hard not to be happy about the NHL returning to Winnipeg. While it’s a much smaller television market than Atlanta, the hockey interest will be far greater, and the infusion of excitement that will come from a team moving from an (essentially) dead market to a lively one will have a positive effect across the league. And with a bevy of talented young players leading the charge, the Winnipeg team will be relevant right from the get-go, which most certainly wouldn’t be the case for an expansion franchise.

Look for the next relocation rumors to focus around Quebec City and Hamilton, with the Coyotes, Panthers and Islanders all candidates to be moved. Hopefully, the Isles will remain in place; the last time a former Stanley Cup-winning team relocated or disbanded was the 1935 Montreal Maroons, and a new arena deal is all that’s standing in the Isles’ way of returning to prominence. The situations in Phoenix and Florida are murkier.

While the hockey operations folks in Phoenix have done a fine job of keeping the team competitive, there’s not enough local interest to sustain the team for the long haul. And in Florida, GM Dale Tallon is a fine bet to build the hockey club into a perennial contender, but after nearly 20 years the team still doesn’t have a vibrant fan base. Winning might help, but it’s no sure bet.

If the Winnipeg team thrives, it will become ever harder to argue against putting more teams in Canada, and all indications are that the Winnipeg team will get off to a flying start.

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