Even as a capacity crowd packed the RBC Center for Sunday's all-star game in Carolina, and as commissioner Gary Bettman tried to quiet relocation talk, concerns continue to cloud the NHL's two-decade-long foray into the Southern United States.
The question is not whether the South will rise again but whether it will rise at all.
Twenty years after the NHL awarded a franchise to the Tampa Bay area to introduce hockey to markets in the southern United States outside of California, the league has had only sporadic success. Year after year, for every step forward there were two steps back.
The talk is different this season, only in that most of it concerns the Atlanta Thrashers. The perennial money pit is the subject of whispers that the team owners are getting ready to sell to Winnipeg-based True North Sports and Entertainment, which would move the franchise to the Manitoba capital. There is actually a sense of optimism around the other two problem children in the NHL's southern brood, the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers, where attendance is up although revenue may not be.
But Atlanta is different. Even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have mused in recent months that the Thrashers should consider alternatives, such as moving, despite the team being a playoff contender this season. Shortly before a crowd of 14,592, about 4,000 short of capacity, turned up recently to watch the Thrashers play the Toronto Maple Leafs, the man who runs them issued a warning to the team's fans.
"I believe in the second half of the year, the way we're going [in attendance]is a huge statement one way or the other," Don Waddell said.
Waddell, president of Atlanta Spirit LLC, the company that owns the Thrashers, the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA and controls Philips Arena, implied that if ticket sales do not improve and the owners cannot end their long search for new investors or owners, then it might be time to take Bettman's advice.
At this point, the Thrashers sit 28th in the NHL in average attendance -13,053 a game, down 554 from last season. Until recently, both the Predators and Panthers were up, with the Predators sitting 20th in the NHL with an average crowd of 15,999 (up 1,020 a game). The Panthers slipped a little this month are now 22nd at 15,123, a drop of 117 fans a night.
Despite the warning to the fans, Waddell thinks hockey can work in the South, and league sources say the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg is not a slam dunk despite all of the manoeuvring said to be happening behind the scenes. Waddell and his fellow bosses with the Panthers and Predators are in agreement on the major problem facing the southern teams: losing.
Since the Thrashers joined the NHL in the 1999-2000 season, they've made the playoffs just once, in 2007, but failed to win a single game. The Panthers made a magical run to the Stanley Cup final in 1996, the third year of their existence, but last played a postseason game in 2000. The Predators have yet to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning, in 2004, won a championship.
"Ten years of no playoffs is too long for any brand, sports or no sports," said Michael Yormark, president of the Panthers. "We all believe we can be successful in our markets. But we need to provide value in our product versus ticket price. If we do those things we will be successful."
Waddell, Yormark and Jeff Cogen, chief executive officer of the Predators, all say performance means much more in selling tickets in a non-traditional market than it does in a traditional market.
"Up in Toronto, with all due respect, what do you do in the winter time?" Yormark said. "You go see hockey. You can't go to the beach. There's not as many distractions.
"Obviously, hockey is bred into the fabric of that community. You can't compare the two. The reality is, we have to perform."
There, too, the results are mixed. In Atlanta, Rick Dudley succeeded Waddell as the general manager and put the team in playoff contention even though it lost its lone star attraction, forward Ilya Kovalchuk, last season. Thanks to assets received in the Kovalchuk trade, Dudley was able to strip his former employer of some prime talent. Dudley brought defencemen Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel and forwards Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager south from the salary-cap-strapped Chicago Blackhawks.
At the all-star break, the Thrashers held the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But January was not kind, starting with a 9-3 whipping at the hands of the Leafs and the Thrashers went into the break with a 3-4-3 record in their previous 10 games.