- Associated Press - Friday, May 20, 2011

ATLANTA (AP) - The NHL gave Atlanta a mulligan, a do-over, a shot at hockey redemption.

Too bad the Thrashers never had much of a chance.

With the embattled ownership negotiating a sale that could send another Atlanta team north of the border, the city’s hockey fans find themselves in the midst of a death watch, waiting out an announcement that appears inevitable but planning a rally Saturday and longing for someone to step in at the last minute to save the Thrashers from the same fate as the Flames in 1980.

“I hope it doesn’t happen,” said former Flames goalie Dan Bouchard, who still lives in Atlanta. “But from everything I hear, it’s a done deal.”

A Toronto newspaper reported an agreement has been reached to move the team to Winnipeg, and that city’s mayor says it’s just “a matter of time.” Team officials and the NHL insist nothing is official yet, but hockey fans in this sprawling metropolitan area of more than 5 million people can’t help but wonder how it all went wrong.

Again.

The easy thing to point to is the attendance. The Thrashers ranked 28th out of 30 teams this season, averaging 13,469 per game, and even that number appears heavily padded. For instance, a reporter counted less than 1,000 people sitting in the upper deck for a weekday game in early March against Ottawa.

But simply blaming the team’s plight on a lack of fan support obscures the deeper problems: a squabbling ownership group that wanted to dump the franchise almost from the moment it bought it, a payroll that ranks near the bottom of the league, a perennially losing team that hasn’t won a playoff game in 11 seasons.

“They want to blame the fans,” Bouchard told The Associated Press on Friday. “It has nothing to do with fans. It has to do with the ownership. The ownership is terrible.”

The seeds of the Thrashers' woes were planted shortly after the puck dropped for the first time in 1999, while fans were still giddy over the return of the NHL and packing Philips Arena with one sellout after another. Just months into the inaugural season, corporate owner Time Warner (which bought the expansion franchise at the behest of one of its top executives, Ted Turner) merged with AOL. Turner left soon after, the deal was a financial disaster, and the debt-ridden company was forced to shed the Thrashers and its two other Atlanta teams, baseball’s Braves and the NBA’s Hawks.

In 2004, a disparate group of businessmen known as the Atlanta Spirit purchased the Hawks, Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena for $250 million. Before long, the owners have acknowledged in court documents, they began making plans to sell off the NHL team, hoping to capitalize on a new labor agreement reached after the 2004-05 season was canceled.

But the Spirit wasn’t actually in position to pull off the sale because of a contentious legal battle with one of its partners, Boston-based Steve Belkin. That dispute was finally settled this past December when Belkin was bought out by the other owners, a necessary step for completing any sale of the Thrashers.

So, actually, the team has been on the market for less than six months, though the owners claim they’ve been trying to land new investors for the past two years without success. And, with the team apparently on the verge of moving, there’s no indication of anyone making a serious offer to save the Thrashers.

“The key to this may be, in the final analysis, whether or not somebody wants to own the team in Atlanta,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.

As with the attendance issues, it’s more complex than that.

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