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Thrashers' woes in NHL's unofficial spotlight

Kevin C. Cox/2010 Getty Images

By the end of the NHL governors' meetings, the focus of relocation chatter had shifted to the Atlanta Thrashers from the Phoenix Coyotes.

This is far from official chatter, however, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tartly noted Tuesday, when the two-day gathering ended, that there was no such talk on the agenda.

When reporters raised the struggles of the Thrashers, who are once again near the bottom of the NHL in attendance (an average announced crowd of 11,789) and whose owners are looking for new investors, Bettman grew dismissive.

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"You know, too much is made about franchise issues at a particular point in time," he said. "Our goal is to keep all our franchises where they are. That's always been our goal and that's what we try to do."

Happier topics for the league's board of governors Tuesday were the new rule against blindside hits to the head (they like the way it's working), the prospects of striking gold on a new U.S. television contract next summer, and that St. Louis Blues governor Dave Checketts appears to have some investors lined up to replace the investment fund that wants to cash out its stake in the club.

Bettman also said there was "constant, universal and unqualified" support from the governors for NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell. Campbell wound up in hot water recently, when his e-mails criticizing referees' calls against his son and a nasty shot at Boston Bruins centre Marc Savard became public.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Sabres majority owner Tom Golisano brushed aside reports that Pennsylvania billionaire Terrence Pegula is angling to buy his franchise. "We get inquiries about the team all the time. If something substantive happens, we'll let you know," Golisano said.

But when it comes to the Thrashers, even those at the top of the NHL recognize the problems. The team has endured a long and bitter feud among its ownership group - which is still not settled - and it has never been a consistent draw in Atlanta.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly recently told a Winnipeg radio station that relocation is a possibility if things cannot be turned around. Daly clarified his remarks at the Florida meetings, saying he did not mean a move "is imminent."

But with groups in Winnipeg and Quebec stalking the Thrashers, talk of relocation is growing - although Don Waddell, president of the company that owns the club, insists the league will not allow a move.

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"That's why I speak up about it because it does get frustrating," Waddell said of the relocation talk, his frustration written on his face. "We deal with it as it comes up and it's been coming up for three years now. It won't be the last time for sure.

"Those are things out of our control. Our focus is going to stay on trying to sell tickets in Atlanta."

However, Waddell did note that with the Thrashers playing well and facing a series of home dates, "it will be a good test for our market in the next two to three weeks."

Waddell said even though the crowds are smaller this season, paid attendance is "up 5 per cent" over last season because of fewer giveaways and deep discounts.

As for the Coyotes, Bettman noted prospective owner Matthew Hulsizer still has some work to do on getting an arena lease, although one is expected to be presented to Glendale city council for approval on Dec. 14. Bettman said Hulsizer is expected to pledge to keep the team in the Phoenix area "for a certain term."

The NHL usually demands a seven-year commitment from new owners to the team's current city. Sources have said Hulsizer's proposed arena lease calls for payments to the Coyotes as high as $100-million (U.S.) over at least five years.

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Optimism was more evident when talk turned to new TV deals when the NHL's contracts with the NBC and Versus networks expire in June.

"To have us now in a position where there are a lot of networks genuinely interested in us, is a good thing," Blues president John Davidson said.

Finally, with Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks on his way out, there is an opening on the governors' 10-member executive committee. The Toronto Maple Leafs would like to see their representative, Larry Tanenbaum, snare the vacancy.

Even though the Leafs are the NHL's wealthiest team, they have been denied a voice in the league's most important ownership committee because of a frosty relationship with Bettman that goes back to the club's moderate position in the 2004-05 lockout. But there are hopes things are thawing enough with Bettman for Tanenbaum to get the position.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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