x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

And the door quietly closes in Atlanta's second flirt with NHL

The Thrashers look set to go north and return the NHL to previously jilted Winnipeg, writes Sam McCaig.

Not with a bang but a whimper. That appears to be the exit strategy of the Atlanta Thrashers, whose relocation to Winnipeg reportedly is imminent.

The Phoenix Coyotes are staying put, for another year at least, thanks to a US$25 million (Dh92m) nudge from the local Glendale city council that doesn't want its arena to lose its primary tenant.

But the Thrashers, another team in another market that didn't take, are ready to eschew a drawn-out soap opera in favour of the next north-bound train.

So, for the second time in the 30 years, an NHL franchise has failed in Atlanta - the 10th-biggest market in the US and a key television market as well - and is hoping to find greener pastures in the Canadian prairie. (The Atlanta Flames relocated to Calgary in 1980.)

The Thrashers were doomed, it seems, by unstable ownership and poor management, which resulted in a team that missed the play-offs year after year.

Atlanta qualified for the post-season just once in 11 campaigns, and that is a recipe for disaster in a non-traditional hockey market.

So it is likely on to Winnipeg, where fans have been watching the death throes of the Coyotes for two-plus years in the hopes they would get back their beloved Jets.

But when news broke last week that it would likely be the Thrashers, not the Coyotes, coming to town, the people of Winnipeg did not complain; they rushed into the streets, chanting, singing and partying late into the night in anticipation of the NHL's return to the city.

Of course, the first and most obvious question is: why does the NHL think it will fly in Winnipeg this time around, after the Jets left for Phoenix back in 1996? Well, Winnipeg is a hockey town, through and through, is a great start, and a new, 15,000-seat arena should be just big enough to accommodate an NHL-calibre show.

Economically, the salary cap has helped level the playing field between small-market and big-market teams, and the fact that the Canadian dollar is at par with the US dollar is a boon, too, but certainly, there are no guarantees. If the team struggles to win, they eventually will struggle to sell tickets and stay afloat.

But for the moment there's hope and buzz and belief. And that's more than you could ever say for the NHL's days in Atlanta.