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Stephen Brunt

The heat is on the NHL in Atlanta... no kidding Add to ...

You can always tell when the commissioner of the NHL has his back against the wall. He immediately starts looking for messengers to shoot.

Faced with a media scrum in advance of Thursday's Game 7 between the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks, Gary Bettman was naturally asked about the Atlanta Thrashers' situation - that being the league's most obvious inferno now that those wise folks in Glendale, Ariz., have bought themselves another year of hockey for a mere $25-million (U.S.).

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Is it true, Bettman was asked, the Thrashers are already signed, sealed and delivered to Winnipeg?

"Somebody is making stuff up," he said. "Where is the accountability from everybody who a month ago said Phoenix was definitely going? Whatever is being written is being made up."

Sorry. This stuff J.K. Rowling couldn't make up.

To be fair, these aren't exactly salad days for commissioners, even the really good ones. David Stern seems set to lead the NBA into a profoundly nasty and destructive lockout about five minutes after LeBron James hoists the Larry O'Brien Trophy (thus cursing him and his team as a gift to the long suffering people of Cleveland). And Roger Goodell is already in the middle of one, and in the middle of some potentially dangerous and costly antitrust waters, having already allowed NFL labour matters to partially hijack the Super Bowl.

Only baseball's Bud Selig maintains a statesmanlike position, above the fray - a sentence one never, ever expected to compose.

But still, in the bad messaging department, the NHL wins hands down.

Within a single week, right smack dab in the middle of the Stanley Cup playoffs, we have had another crazy chapter in the history of the Phoenix Coyotes (certainly not the last), culminating in that absurdist city council meeting, complete with its colourful supporting cast of local citizenry.

That was followed immediately by a story out of Columbus in which the Blue Jackets ownership admitted to having lost $25-million this past season, and $80-million over the six campaigns since the lockout - the same work stoppage Bettman claimed was the necessary price paid to fix the NHL's struggling franchises.

And now, within 24 hours, there has been all kinds of interesting, if somewhat contradictory information coming out of Atlanta, which conventional wisdom suggests is about to lose an NHL team for the second time.

In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz, a long-time sage observer of the game, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly refused to guarantee that the Thrashers would play in Atlanta next season. Not that he'd guarantee they wouldn't of course, or put on odds on them relocating.

"I'm not into handicapping," he said. "I'm usually wrong."

Bettman, on the same subject, wouldn't go that far, though he also declined to offer any of the "everything is just fine, buyers are lining up" quotes that have been a hallmark of the Coyotes debacle.

The really telling stuff, though, came from sources outside the NHL.

Former Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, who has been trying to pull together an ownership group to keep the Thrashers in town, admitted he's having absolutely no luck. "You have to get somebody willing to write a cheque and keep the team here," he said. "So far, that's been tough to get done."

And a spokesman for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed acknowledged the Thrashers "may leave." More significantly, Reese McCranie said, even given that threat, the city (which is currently facing the possibility of staff layoffs) wouldn't even consider a handout like the one offered by Glendale.

So there is the significant difference between the two places. Not the size or desirability of the television market (Atlanta wins there), or the fan support (mediocre to lousy in both), or the local hockey culture (let's just say it's a minority passion), or the availability of an actual, cheque-writing potential owner (no sign of one in either place).

It's the fact that in one, there are patsies in local government who, whatever the prevailing economic climate, are willing to offer up a no-questions-asked handout because they've gone all in trying to build their backwater around professional sport.

And in the other, there are not.

In any case, there should be lots to write about, lots to talk about, right through the Stanley Cup final.

Fantastical stuff, indeed, but non-fiction, all of it.

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