Naylor: Which team is most likely to end up in Winnipeg?

Dave Naylor
4/1/2011 9:35:27 PM
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It's easy to see why Winnipeggers might not want to let their hopes get too high.

Having had their hearts ripped from their chests 15 years ago, having watched the NHL happily plant its flag in bigger (and supposedly) better places and then watching the tide slowly turn in their favour, this must all seem a little surreal right now.

The local kooks who predicted the NHL would return one day look like seers these days, and even the most cynical hockey fans in Manitoba must now concede there is at least a very real glimmer of hope.

All of that is true not so much because of what Winnipeg brings to the table but because there are two NHL franchises that appear very close to the brink.

The first of those is of course the Phoenix Coyotes, the playoff-bound franchise whose 22-month-old soap opera began way back when former owner Jerry Moyes threw up his hands, put the Coyotes into bankruptcy and tried to hand the keys to Jim Balsillie.

That feels like ancient history these days, with Moyes, Balsillie and Judge Redfield T. Baum having given way to Matthew Hulsizer, Senator John McCain and the Goldwater Institute as the stars in this tragic comedy.

With all sides entrenched in their positions, with the front having gone quiet but for the occasional antagonistic press release from the Goldwater bunch (no, they are not going away), it's reasonable to ask whether the NHL is merely waiting for the Coyotes season to play out before it pulls the plug.

That's a reasonable possibility, given that the deal to finance the purchase was supposed to close more than a month ago, given that there has been no softening of positions, and given that the NHL owns the Coyotes and therefore wouldn't want the embarrassing and costly spectacle of an empty arena for the playoffs. But unless the proposed municipal bond sale can somehow close, someone is going to have to spend a pot of money to keep the Coyotes in Glendale for another season. 

And it's not at all clear who might have the appetite for that.

What's interesting is that long before the Coyotes have put the 2010-11 season behind them, it will be time to ask what's next for another NHL welfare child, the Atlanta Thrashers.

The Thrashers are on the block, having lost $130 million over the past five years according to court records. The current owners want to unload the franchise before next season, and although there are tire-kickers who've stepped forward, the future is anything but certain.

Put more bluntly, some familiar with the situation say no one in their right mind would by the team without the expressed permission to move it.

The problem is there aren't a whole lot of empty markets with avid fan bases willing to support NHL hockey, unless you believe Kansas City or Las Vegas can work overnight.

There is of course the idea of relocation to the Quebec City's Colisee where revenues would certainly be more robust than Atlanta while construction on a new arena is being completed.

But the question right now, impossible as it may be to answer, is which team is most likely to end up in Winnipeg next season?

Or viewed from another perspective, which team should Winnipeg want?

On one hand, getting the old Jets back from Phoenix would be sweet justice, even if Shane Doan - the last remaining player who wore a Winnipeg jersey - won't be sporting pom-poms as he gets off the plane in Manitoba.

On the other, perhaps Winnipeg would be better off with a fresh start. A new name, a new identity, and no tie to its history of playoff failures and red ink, another assist from Atlanta just like the one Calgary received 30 years ago.

And hockey wise?

Well, even TSN's Bob Mckenzie isn't sure what the best option would be.

Atlanta isn't a playoff team but in Ondrej Pavelec, Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane and Bryan Little - none of whom is older than 23 - they certainly have the building blocks for the future.

But in Keith Yandle, Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Turris, Olver Ekman-Larsson and upcoming Brandon Gormley, the Coyotes have a foot in the present and the future as well.

"It's sort of a wash, to be honest," said McKenzie. "Phoenix is obviously better right now, but Atlanta has some building blocks in place. Both organizations are positioned pretty well for the future, both in the short and long term."

As is Winnipeg, it would seem.

It just has to decide whom to cheer for.

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