Atlanta owner says if things don’t improve, Thrashers could be on the move

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You would think with the Thrashers being a playoff contending team this season that attention and ticket sales would improve in Atlanta. They play an entertaining brand of hockey with a pair of electric personalities in Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane and most of all they’ve been able to win more often than not.

Instead, the Thrashers have the third worst attendance in the league filling up just 70.4% of Phillips Arena to the tune of an average crowd of 13,056. Atlanta isn’t always known as a great sports town and support for teams like the Braves, Falcons, and Hawks have always been mercurial. Thrashers owner Michael Gearon understands this and is trying to be pro-active about lighting a fire under the fans and inspiring them to come out to games and get more local corporate support behind the team.

Problem is, he’s opted to go about doing so in a the threatening, doom and gloom kind of way rather than a positive spin as Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shared today.

Atlanta Spirit co-owner Michael Gearon said there is now a “sense of urgency” to find additional investors or a buyer willing to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta. If the ownership group does not get additional financial help in the near future the franchise could be sold and moved to another city.

“If we are faced with that as the only alternative, that’s what’s going to happen,” Gearon told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview Tuesday. “I don’t think there is an ability to stomach another $20 million in losses. We just can’t do it.

“The reality is we need fans showing up and we need investors, or a primary investor.”

An owner pleading with the locals to help him out so he doesn’t suffer more multi-million dollar losses. It’s a situation we’ve gotten to be too familiar with thanks to the ongoing saga in Phoenix with the Coyotes and former owner Jerry Moyes. This stuff with Atlanta has been bubbling for a while as the Atlanta Spirit group continues to drown in litigation with former ownership partner Steve Belkin.

Atlanta Spirit has been trying to sell the Thrashers for six years, starting almost immediately after purchasing the team, according to the Jan. 21 lawsuit filed in Fulton County Superior Court against Atlanta law firm King & Spalding.

The group filed a $200 million malpractice lawsuit against the firm saying a “fatally flawed” and “botched” contract written to buy out former partner Steve Belkin prevented a Thrashers sale in the nearly five years it took to settle that suit in December.

Before the current litigation, the Atlanta Spirit stated publicly for the past two years that it was looking for investors for the Thrashers, Hawks or both franchises. According to the lawsuit, ownership reported more than $130 million in operating losses since 2005. The Thrashers value also has dropped by more than $50 million, the document says.

With that sort of mess on their hands, Gearon coming out and saying that if things don’t improve soon, things will be dire for the team and their future in Atlanta will be in peril.  It’s the sort of thing we’ve gotten used to hearing from owners looking for financial help to get their way. Moyes tried it in Phoenix and Mario Lemieux did something similar when negotiating for a new arena in Pittsburgh. In Mario’s case he won out and CONSOL Energy Center was built. For Moyes, he had his team bought from him by the NHL rather than getting to escape by selling the team to Jim Balsillie.

For Atlanta, circumstances are a bit different as their ownership situation is a mess with the ongoing court stuff and the seeming overall disinterest from the people in Atlanta on the whole. Atlanta does have a sect of very loyal and loving fans, but branching out beyond those few thousands has been the struggle all along in such a hot-and-cold sports town like Atlanta.

Of course, when you come out all guns blazing to call attention to something you find to be a problem, you’re going to get noticed. This afternoon, Gearon was on local Atlanta radio with John Kincade to talk about his comments and hit the gas to backpedal away from a lot of his initial thoughts.

Apparently Gearon didn’t realize that all of Canada is eager to get a struggling American NHL team back in their own hands. Gearon spun things a bit more level-headed-like on the air today as Laura Astorian of SBN Atlanta summed up.

Most pointedly, Kincade asked Gearon if he could guarantee that the team wouldn’t be moving, and the response was a stock answer about dedication to the team. The best quality quote, though, is this one:

“I’m not hitting a panic button here and I apologize if it came out that way. I want to set the record straight and get the fans and community on board with us.”

Less doom and gloom, more rah-rah stuff. You can’t help but think that Gearon got a phone call from the league office in Manhattan asking him to be a bit more careful talking about a team that’s already got attendance issues and is in the midst of a playoff race. The last thing the NHL wants to deal with is financial fires on both sides of the country and while the situation in Atlanta is bad, they’re nearly out of the woods with Phoenix so having this come up now is wildly inconvenient both in how the league wants to handle things and how the perception of the league is amongst the masses.

It would be the NHLs luck though to have things get close to finished with one problem team only to have another rise up and grab all the attention. Here’s to hoping things don’t get that ugly in Atlanta.

Matthew Tkachuk reportedly suspended one game for inciting line brawl

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The Detroit Red Wings felt like the punishment didn’t fit the crime as Luke Witkowski received an automatic 10-game suspension for returning to the ice during that line brawl with the Calgary Flames. How will they feel about Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk reportedly receiving a one-game suspension for his “crime,” then?

Please note that this news was broken by TSN, while it hasn’t been confirmed by the NHL yet, so the explanation video is also not available.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Tkachuk had a lot to do with the brawl, as Witkowski returned to the ice because of his actions. You can also see the moment here:

This marks the second time Tkachuk’s been suspended by the NHL, as he sat two games for this hit on Drew Doughty, which ultimately served as the first chapter in his hate-fest with the Los Angeles Kings:

It’s fitting with such an agitating figure like Tkachuk that the decision stands as polarizing. Some are stunned that the NHL would tack on a one-game suspension after he was ejected for his actions during the 8-2 win for the Red Wings:

Others believe that Tkachuk had it coming.

It wouldn’t be surprising if, meanwhile, the Red Wings believe that it wasn’t nearly sufficient. After the game, Postmedia’s Wes Gilbertson reports that Tkachuk said that Witkowski was looking for an excuse to return and that he just gave him “a poke.”

Apparently, this time, Tkachuk also poked the bear and will have to sit one game in timeout as punishment.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL GMs pleased so far with crack down on slashing

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MONTREAL (AP) — If there are any misgivings about the NHL’s crackdown on slashes to the hands, they are not shared by the general managers.

Teams are scoring about half a goal more since officials made the quick tap to the hands or the top of the stick the NHL’s most frequently called minor penalty. The rule was aimed not only at protecting players after some gruesome hand injuries last season, but also to eliminate it as a tactic to cause skilled players to lose control of the puck.

”It’s still a work in progress but in general I think the standard has been very positive,” the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steve Yzerman said after a three-hour meeting of the league’s 31 GMs.

The meeting was held at the former Windsor Hotel, where the NHL was founded in November, 1917. It was one of several events this weekend to mark the league’s centennial.

There were no major decisions made. The GMs and league officials discussed issues in the game like goaltender interference reviews, offside challenges and the crackdown on faceoff violations.

The talks helped set the agenda for a more in-depth, three-day meeting in March, where rule change proposals are usually made.

The slashing crackdown has seen a parade to the penalty box, but the calls look to be here to stay.

”I think people are a little frustrated when you’re getting those penalties and power plays against, but hopefully it smooths out and everybody adjusts to it,” Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. ”I think that’s what everybody is anticipating.

”It’s frustrating going through the process, but hopefully we get to the point where it’s effective and it’s not being done anymore and there are not as many calls.”

Former enforcer George Parros, the new director of player safety, made his first presentation at a GMs meeting and much of it dealt with slashing. He is mainly concerned with violent incidents, like the ugly finger injury suffered by defenseman Marc Methot last season and Johnny Gaudreau‘s hand injury. He said the more common ”love taps” can be handled by the officials on the ice.

”I focused on slashes that are done intentionally, behind the play, and landing on the hands-fingertips area,” Parros said. ”It’s a new standard. Everyone’s getting used to it. If it’s behind the play and it’s intentional and there’s some force to it, then it’s a warning. The variable is force.”

Overall, Parros likes what he’s seen on the ice.

”I gave them an update on numbers and stuff from last year and in general, the trends have been downward,” he said. ”We’ve got less suspensions, less injuries, all things like that. ”The game is being played in a great fashion right now and we hope to continue to do that.”

Colin Campbell, the league’s director of hockey operations, said the rise in scoring may spring from more than just a slashing crackdown.

”I think it’s a reflection of younger players in the league,” he said. ”We’re down to an average of 23 and 24 being our biggest segment of players. I think our players in rush reads and down-low coverage are faster and more talented, but older players are more defensive and have more patience. Younger players make more mistakes, but is there anything wrong with that? We always say if you want more goals you need bad goalies and more mistakes.”

Offside challenges is a contentious issue. When brought in last season, there were complaints that coaches were using them too often and were slowing down the games. This season, if a challenge fails, a minor penalty is called. That has cut down challenges dramatically.

But Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli said: ”I think the sentiment is generally positive on putting that minor penalty in and reducing the number of challenges.”

Goaltender interference challenges also were discussed, but pinning down a consistent standard in judging whether a player has interfered with or been pushed into a goalie is elusive.

They were also to discuss making penalties called in overtime last only one minute instead of two to boost 3-on-3 time.

One thing there appeared to be no talk of was trades.

”You never see any of that here. There’s not enough time,” Toronto GM Lou Lamoriello said.

Golden Knights can’t contain excitement in getting a healthy goalie back

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Everyone, you can downgrade the Vegas Golden Knights’ goalie situation from “absurd” to … I don’t know, tenuous?

Eh, we can fuss over the right way to describe the situation any time. For now, the Golden Knights are delighted that Malcolm Subban has been activated from IR, as mentioned on their official website, and boy was it mentioned on Twitter.

The fawning borders on “Your friend who’s fallen into puppy love and is totally overwhelmed, making it both adorable and kind of annoying.”

Aw.

Sheesh, we get i–

*rolls eyes*

At least it all started with this helpful update on who’s healthy and who’s not:

Meanwhile, Dylan Ferguson returns to the WHL.

OK, so let’s take a look at how that big group did so far, remembering that the Golden Knights are still keeping it going with a fairly astounding 11-6-1 record.

Marc-Andre Fleury: 3-1-0, .925 save percentage, suffered what might have been a concussion.

Maxime Lagace: 3-5-1, .864 save percentage, didn’t fall apart altogether despite being wildly inexperienced for the task at hand.

Oscar Dansk: 3-0-0, .946 save percentage. When he got hurt, things went from ridiculous to absurd.

Subban: 2-0-0, .936 save percentage. He’s back, did you hear?

Ferguson: One goal allowed, one save in 9:14 of play.

*takes a breath*

So, yeah. that’s quite the run of netminders. Subban was playing remarkably well before he was injured, and it’s worth remembering that the Golden Knights essentially chose him over Calvin Pickard. Time will tell if that’s the right decision for the franchise, but right now, they’re clearly over the moon just to have a more NHL-appropriate goalie available again.

Sometimes it’s about the simplest things in life, eh?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

McDavid, Gretzky, Toews to be enshrined in toast

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Ever wanted the face of (a hockey) God etched on the side of your toast as you awake from your nightly slumber?

Perhaps you’ve always wanted to give the gift of toast during the holiday season.

By some well-timed divine intervention, your prayers have been answered.

The Son of Hockey, McJesus (or Connor McDavid for those living under the meme rock) will be available to all who are willing to receive its breakfast blessings come Nov. 20 from Canadian Tire.

Canadian Tire has teamed up with McDavid, the ‘Great One’ Wayne Gretzky and ‘Captain Serious’ Jonathan Toews to #GiveAToast, and to help advertise the new face-on-toast engravers, three satirical (and quite frankly hilarious) commercials have been released on YouTube.

All proceeds from the sale of McDavid’s divine toaster, along with Gretzky’s ‘The Great Toaster,’ winner of four “Stanley Crusts” and Toews’ ‘The Toewster’ will go to help support Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart program, which “gives kids from families in financial need the same chance to participate in sport as their neighbours, their classmates and their friends.”

All three commercials are really well done, but Toews’ shines above the other two.

The three-time Stanley Cup champion claims his toaster studies the opponent in his commercial. He professes that he doesn’t even eat toast but that he uses it to toast the chia seeds he throws into his smoothies (it won’t actually toast chia seeds, or at least that’s what on-screen pop-up warns.)

It remains to be seen if these bread crispers turn into the next Furby or Tickle Me Elmo and cause mass hysteria.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck