Does Nik Antropov’s name ring a bell? No? What about Maxim Afinogenov?
If you’re unable to distinguish Antropov from Afinogenov, I’m going to assume you’re not familiar with Niclas Bergfors, Pavel Kubina, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Ondrej Pavelec and Johnny Oduya, either.
Aside from owning names seemingly taken from the bottom line of an eye chart, these men – professional hockey players – share a stake in the playoff hopes of the Thrashers.
Have you heard of the Thrashers? Anybody?
The Thrashers compete for Atlanta in the Southeast Division of the NHL’s Eastern Conference. Admitted to the league as an expansion franchise in 1999 – back in the days when major league hockey supposedly had a future in the Sun Belt – the Thrashers’ official team colors are Atlanta Midnight Blue, Thrasher Ice Blue, Georgia Bronze, Capitol Copper, Peachtree Gold and White.
It sounds like a mess – more to the point, it looks like a mess – but nothing close to the mess created by a squabbling ownership group that appears to have run out of ideas to generate fan interest in Atlanta. The Thrashers are rumored to be for sale, and this is where their saga takes a detour to the Pacific Northwest.
“Anybody with a hockey background would not want to buy the team and keep it in Atlanta, which is why the NHL would not stand in the way of a new owner moving the team in a couple of years,” Hockey News columnist Ken Campbell wrote last week.
“One possibility,” Campbell continued, “is Seattle, which would give the NHL another team in the West if the Thrashers were to move there, allowing the Detroit Red Wings to take their place in the Eastern Conference.”
The notion of the NHL someday moving to Seattle is not new. During his clumsy appeal to state lawmakers for a vote on public funding toward a new multipurpose arena, SuperSonics owner Clay Bennett hired a consultant to explore the feasibility of acquiring an NHL team to be a co-tenant with the Sonics. The consultant apparently returned with thumbs up, not that it mattered. Because Bennett’s heart was in Oklahoma City, the bringing-the-NHL-to-Seattle factor was as half-baked as everything else in his Show-Me-The-Money proposal.
If a Seattle-area hockey franchise was considered feasible before the Sonics’ departure, it’s got to be – forgive the expression – a slam dunk now that there’s a void in the winter pro-sports calendar. In many ways, Seattle-Tacoma is an ideal NHL market, from its size (15th largest in the U.S.), to its demographics (an abundance of college graduates, a key target for advertisers), to its geography (120 miles south of Canada, the sport’s birthplace), to its history (the 1917 Seattle Metropolitans were the first American hockey team to win the Stanley Cup).
Furthermore, those tempted to draw conclusions between Seattle’s tepid fight to keep the Sonics and Seattle’s legitimacy as a sports town have been proven wrong by Seattle’s overwhelming embracement of Major League Soccer. One game into its second season, the Sounders are more than a model MLS franchise. The Sounders are the model MLS franchise.
Back to the ice: In terms of actual participation, the Greater Seattle Hockey League is among the five most renowned recreation leagues in the country. There’s a paucity of indoor facilities and rink time is precious, but there’s a grass-roots enthusiasm for the sport that would only intensify with the arrival of an NHL team.
As the NHL makes sense for this market, this market makes sense for the NHL, too. As Campbell suggested in The Hockey News, Detroit is an awkward (and expensive) destination in a conference that includes four teams (Vancouver, Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles) on the West Coast. Seattle fits nicely into any plans for divisional realignment.
OK, for the half-a-billion-dollar question: Who pays for an NHL arena in the Seattle area? Short answer: Nobody who isn’t interested in buying a ticket. The public-private solution to wooing pro sports teams might be pitched elsewhere, but not in this region. If an NHL franchise moves here, it will be because an investor – not necessarily with local ties – envisions hockey as a long-term success story in the Puget Sound area.
I’ve got no clue who that investor is, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman might. It was Bettman’s idea to expand into Atlanta, and it’s his responsibility to get out of Atlanta.
Since he’s got other struggling-franchise issues to tackle – Phoenix, Nashville, the New York Islanders, two teams in Florida – Bettman is an expert on what doesn’t work, and thus figures to be thrilled with the possibility of relocating a team into a market that can work.
The Seattle Thrashers?
It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and could turn out to be an acquired taste. But it sure beats the Thunder.