Moving a hockey team from one city to another, let alone one country to another, is a complicated undertaking but someone who lived through it says the players will face the most difficult adjustment.
"The hardest part is for the players and coaches to adjust from moving from a non-traditional market to a market that is a real hockey hot-bed," said Cliff Fletcher, who was general manager of the Atlanta Flames in 1980 and helped oversee their move to Calgary that summer.
"In a non-traditional market, [a player]may not be recognized from the time you leave practice until you return the next day. When you move to a market like we moved to in Calgary or like Winnipeg will be, everyone is recognized all the time. It's a totally different work environment."
Just when that will be for the players with the Atlanta Thrashers is not certain. As reported in The Globe and Mail last week, True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., has an agreement in principle to buy the Thrashers and move them to Winnipeg. Stakeholders in Manitoba were advised to prepare for an announcement Tuesday but banking and legal arrangements delayed the announcement.
With True North wishing to announce both a sale conditional on the approval of the NHL board of governors and a season-ticket drive, the announcement may not come until next Monday or later next week.
When Atlanta loses an NHL team for the second time, the players and coaches will be in the same position as their predecessors when they get to Winnipeg. If the move works the same way it did 31 years ago, the early results will be spectacular - the Flames went to the Stanley Cup semi-finals in their first year in Calgary - but the long term results will be less certain. The Flames flopped the following season, underwent a house-cleaning and did not win a Stanley Cup until eight years later in 1989.
Bill Clement, who was a 29-year-old checking centre and penalty-killer on that Flames team, agrees it was a big adjustment. But Clement, now a television broadcaster with the Philadelphia Flyers, remembers the hockey side of it being painless.
"The hockey part of moving was great," he said. "We lost five home games all year and went to the [semi-finals]
"It was everything outside of the arena that was shocking: The cost of living, the weather, availability of amenities. It was almost like going to a barren land compared to Atlanta where everything was accessible and the cost of living was very low. Living was easy in Atlanta."
The Flames players had the misfortune to be earning relatively modest salaries (Clement said he was making $137,000 U.S. per year) and to move to a city in the middle of an oil boom. Calgary exploded in population from around 400,000 in the late 1970s to more than 600,000 in the early 1980s, so the players were hit by sticker shock when it came to housing.
When it came to their jobs, the players thrived with all of the attention. In Atlanta, the team was known as a regular-season force and playoff flop with five consecutive first-round losses before they came to Calgary.
"I'm sure in Atlanta there were times when fans didn't hold you accountable for anything and neither did the media," Clement said. "Being in a hockey hotbed, players were held more accountable for their own play. I think that really helped us in our first year."
The new owners worked out a lease at the Corral with the city before the Flames arrived in Calgary. That was the easy part.
Off the ice, Fletcher said it took almost four months to get the team settled into a new arena and new offices. Since the Flames had to play at the old 7,200-seat Corral, which had next to no office space, the staff worked out of trailers for three years. This is a logistical problem that won't be a factor in Winnipeg though, where the MTS Centre is just seven years old and designed to accommodate a professional hockey team.
"Logistically, it's a transition that requires a lot of work," Fletcher said. "The team will have a new identity, a new name, new jerseys to be designed, a new logo to be designed, all new outer equipment."
It will also need to sell tickets, luxury boxes, negotiate local broadcasting contracts and help the players find housing.
Since True North already owns an American Hockey League team, the Manitoba Moose, it will already have staff in place to handle this. But Fletcher warned a lot more staff is needed for an NHL operation.
"Without a doubt, they have people in marketing and sales, which gives them a foundation in bringing an NHL team," Fletcher said. "On the other hand, you're talking apples and oranges here because the dollars you need to generate with an NHL franchise are overwhelmingly greater than they are in running an American League team."