Friday, May 20, 2011
Players support Winnipeg getting Thrashers
By Pierre LeBrun
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The possible relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg was a buzz item at the morning skate Friday with the general consensus that it's a good thing.
"I think it just didn't seem like it's been working there," said Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle, who played many a game in Atlanta while with the Tampa Bay Lightning. "The team hasn't been that successful. They did have a couple of years where they were in the middle of it. The fans, it just didn't seem like the commitment was there from everybody. It might be time to move. I'm sure Winnipeg will take Atlanta with open arms. We'll see what happens. You never want to see a franchise leave, but it might be time."
Negotiations continue between the Thrashers and True North Sports and Entertainment in Winnipeg, sources confirmed to ESPN.com on Thursday. Unless there's a setback, it appears the Thrashers will play in Winnipeg next season.
"It's exciting for the fans who have been hoping to get a team since they left," said Sharks blueliner Ian White, who grew up a half hour outside Winnipeg. "Hopefully it falls into place for them, and everything works good moving forward."
Canucks assistant coach Rick Bowness was a player and coach in Winnipeg with the former Jets. He spent nine years there.
"Players are treated so well there," Bowness said Friday. "There is only one player in all the years of the Jets that I can ever remember complaining about being there. Every player who ever went there loved it, loved the way they were treated, loved the community.
"The community really made you feel part of it. Players will enjoy playing there."
Canucks forward Jeff Tambellini played in Winnipeg during the past few years with the AHL's Manitoba Moose.
"It's hard to see a Canadian market that has the fan base Winnipeg has, the passion for the game, not to have it [an NHL team]," he said Friday. "I love the game in Canada. Every [NHL player] wants to play in Canada -- from West Coast to East Coast -- Canadian games are big games. I'm a big fan of this."
White was 12 when the Jets left for Phoenix in 1996, and he remembers the outcry when they left, fans literally emptying their piggy banks to try to help save the team.
"It was a sad day," White said. "That's business, I guess. So hopefully it works out for them this time."
Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who played in Winnipeg with the AHL Moose, had no idea how a team would do there financially but said the fan base was very passionate.
"I know they've wanted a hockey team for a long time now, done a lot of work to get back there, and Mark Chipman's pretty determined to make that happen -- and he'd be a great owner, I think," Bieksa said.
"There's trade-offs. Obviously, there's not going to be a whole lot of sun and warm weather in Winnipeg -- it'll be to the extreme the other way. But at the same time, the fan base, the media coverage, the excitement from the city and fans -- it's going to be 10 times better than [Atlanta]."
Sharks winger Dany Heatley feels bad for fans in Atlanta, where he began his career.
"I don't know why it's happening," Heatley said Friday. "All I can say is that there are a lot of great fans in Atlanta. A lot of great people that work for that organization, and if they move it, it's going to be tough for a lot of people."
And he doesn't understand why it hasn't worked in Atlanta.
"I don't know. You look at the city, I think there's 5 million people that live there. You think they could find some fans. I don't know. All I know is that the fans that are there, the season-ticket holders when I was there, they were big hockey fans."
Former NHL center Ray Ferraro played in Atlanta in the early days of the franchise. He has an idea why it hasn't worked.
"I think with the nontraditional markets, there's two constant themes that you've got to battle: One is that it's a market that may not understand the game as well. And two, it's that they've had zero success," said Ferraro, now a hockey analyst for TSN in Canada. "Atlanta has had some really good players, they've hung on to none of them. ... In Atlanta, we had real good support early. But they've played four playoff games in 10 years. Who's going to go to games?"
Bowness echoed that comment.
"In a nontraditional hockey market ... you've got to win, or show some continued signs of improvement," the Canucks assistant coach said. "They never showed those signs. They made the playoffs once, and to go get Keith Tkachuk [for that 2007 playoff run], they gave up a lot of their future. And they didn't win a game.
"It's not the big names that will sell in those markets. Winning will sell. You win, and they'll come. Like in Nashville."
Ferraro also feels Atlanta is a funny sports town.
"The Braves won 11 straight division titles," he said. "The first year we were there, Andrew Brunette and I went to go to Game 1 of the playoffs. We didn't have tickets, and we worried we couldn't get in. We go up to the box office, and there's 11,000 empty seats. They had been in the playoffs 11 years in a row. You looking for a college football ticket? You're not going to get one. You want to go to NASCAR? You're not going to get a ticket. It's a market with different priorities. Pro sports is down the chain, for sure."
The Thrashers have struggled with attendance most of their history.
"I expect the atmosphere in Winnipeg to be a lot better than it was in Atlanta," White said. "It was pretty quiet, modest crowds in Atlanta, unfortunately. It's too bad to see teams relocate like that -- there's a lot of die-hard fans who fall in love with their team -- but business is such that it happens."
Tambellini said playing games in Atlanta wasn't fun.
"It's tough to go to a building where there is two good teams going at it, and there is no one in the building. There's no atmosphere, no buzz," Tambellini said. "That, we know, is something that in Canadian cities, you'll never see.
"We should be putting our markets in the best places to have success. Winnipeg's a place with a great fan base. They deserve a fan base."