How to last in non-traditional markets
Atlanta Thrashers' failures also illustrate formula for success for struggling franchises
Atlanta has lost an NHL team to a Canadian city, this time Winnipeg, for a second time. The Phoenix Coyotes, underwritten for one more year by the NHL and the city of Glendale, Ariz., have become carrion rotting in the desert sun for the vultures of Quebec City or perhaps Hamilton, Ontario.
The Canadian dollar is 24 percent stronger against the U.S. dollar than it was in 1995, when the Quebec Nordiques fled to Denver, one year before the first incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets followed to Phoenix. As much as the small markets on both sides of the border will insist in upcoming CBA negotiations that the $16 million cap gap between the ceiling and the floor is too wide, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa remain healthier than Phoenix and Dallas, who are looking for owners, and Florida, which hasn't made the playoffs in 11 years, suggesting that some of commissioner Gary Bettman's new markets face a stiffer challenge than others.
Chicago Stadium was a ghost town for Blackhawks games for decades. The Boston Bruins averaged 2,000 empty seats a game the year before the lockout and didn't sell out the season again until this past year. But in the inevitable downturns that all franchises suffer, the traditional markets almost never are threatened with relocation.
Meanwhile the Coyotes, who were an instant hit in downtown Phoenix, the Panthers, who rocked the Miami Arena as a Stanley Cup finalist in only their third season, and the Stars, a near sellout for a virtual decade after their Cup win in 1999, didn't grow their roots deep enough and are feared to be the next Atlanta, indicating that non-traditional markets have a much smaller margin for bad years.
"I go back to the original Atlanta franchise [as assistant GM of the Atlanta Flames]," said David Poile, the Nashville Predators' president of hockey operations. "And I think the same thing that applied both times to Atlanta applies to Nashville, too. Whenever you go into a non-traditional market there is work to be done over a number of years, not only in ticket and television sales, but in sponsorships and in work with the political factions in the town.
"We have had highs and lows in Nashville. [Original owner] Craig Leipold wanted to go in a different direction [eventually buying the Minnesota Wild] and our present ownership group saved us or we could possibly have been in the same situation as Atlanta," Poile said.
"The Flames made the playoffs [six out of eight years], attendance was good. But eight years was hardly any chance for ultimate success and [owner Tom] Cousins wanted out. Again this time the owners wanted to sell [after 12 years] and nobody stepped up to buy the team to keep it there.
"It's not like I believe Atlanta couldn't have been a successful franchise," he said. "I'm not privy to the ins and outs of the Thrashers' lease arrangement and the other stuff, but there wasn't enough [on-ice] success. Things could have been better."
But what exactly? A few questions to several GMs and a glimpse into past expansion start to suggest a formula for success for some of the NHL's now-struggling franchises.