Editor’s note: Last summer, prior to Greg Wyshynski hightailing it to ESPN and Yahoo killing off Puck Daddy and their other sports blogs, their summer project was an alternate history of the NHL. Team by team, writers that cover each club weighed in on what might have been different had one decision, one moment, gone in a different direction. Mike and Derek from Section 328 penned the Canes’ entry, exploring what life would have been like had the Red Wings not matched Sergei Fedorov’s offer sheet in 1998.
This summer, we’re taking the concept to a new level.
Over the next few weeks, we will look back at some pivotal moments in Hurricanes history, and ruminate on how things might have turned out under different circumstances. What if Cam Ward doesn’t rob Fernando Pisani with three minutes left of Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final? Where are the Canes now if Frederik Andersen signs his entry-level deal and doesn’t re-enter the draft? What if the Canes had drafted Sean Monahan instead of Elias Lindholm?
Today, we begin with Justin’s exploration of what might have happened if stable ownership had swooped in and saved the Atlanta Thrashers in the summer of 2011. Welcome to the revisionist history of the Carolina Hurricanes. Enjoy! - Brian
The date is April 10, 2011. Atlanta Thrashers majority owner Michael Gearon throws his pen down in frustration after the Thrashers drop a 5-2 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins. This could possibly be the last game of the franchise in the city of Atlanta. A dejected Gearon gears up for a offseason that could be a bit different. The rumors had been circulating around the fan base that Gearon may be selling the franchise to a ownership group north of the border.
A few days after the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, Gearon receives a call from True North Sports and Entertainment. “170 million dollars. That’s our offer,” says the management group. The ownership groups wants to relocate the team to Winnipeg, Manitoba for a second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets, after the previous club left in 1996 for Phoenix, Arizona. Gearon, who has run into some financial trouble, desperately seeks someone to take the team off his hands. This seems like an offer he can’t refuse.
But then, he gets a second call.
“Hey, Michael! Jerry Bruckheimer here. So, I’ve formulated an ownership group and we’d love to talk business. Look, I know we talked in 2008 and it didn’t work out well. But how about $180 million for the majority stake?” Gearon, obviously impressed by the number, contacts his people and starts drafting a deal.
Fast forward a few weeks and Jerry Bruckheimer shakes hands with commissioner Gary Bettman as the new owner of the Atlanta Thrashers. With a booming television and movie industry thriving in Georgia, Bruckheimer sees it as the perfect fit for his personal and business life.
But now with the business deal in place, it’s time for Bruckheimer to shape the vision of the team on the ice. The Thrashers haven’t sniffed the playoffs since the 2006-07 season and desperately need help. The foundation is there, with Andrew Ladd leading the team with young stars Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane and Bryan Little emerging into a young core that can work with the right supporting cast.
As the team heads in the offseason before the 2011-12 season, they need an aggressive new approach with flashy management and financial security now at the forefront. The next step: bringing back the fans. A once exciting and non-traditional fanbase gave way to disappointment and empty seats. The former management failed to make the moves necessary to keep the fans coming in one of the biggest cities in America.
Leading the pack of possible additions is center Brad Richards, expected to hit the open market. At 31, Bruckheimer and general manager Rick Dudley know Richards is not a long term solution but they bring him in, outbidding top markets in the process. The team adds additional pieces, poaching Joni Pitkanen and Erik Cole from the division-rival Carolina Hurricanes, weakening a top-heavy Southeast Division.
With the Thrashers plucking two players from Carolina, the team from Raleigh is forced into a rebuild quicker, instead of being stuck in a period of treading water that hurts the long term stability of the franchise. The Hurricanes are able to be a competitive team quicker as a result of losing important personnel and draft higher in drafts following after sniffing the playoffs at the end of the 2010-11 season.
At the beginning of the 2011-12 season, Bruckheimer and his management team use video marketing in order to engage with fans and get them back into the seats. Local celebrities like Lil Jon support the team in their campaigns and push them to the forefront of NHL attention. The new management capitalizes on the mistakes that Gearon and company made that almost forced the team to Canada.
With a revamped roster and a younger core ready to push forward, the Thrashers find their way to the near the top of the division in the 2011-12 season. The Capitals still lead the way behind a dynamic Alex Ovechkin, but a Tampa Bay Lightning team that hasn’t reached the best of its capabilities isn’t enough to keep Atlanta out of the postseason. The Thrashers push their way into the playoffs but the happy ending comes to a halt after a second round exit. There’s no Cinderella ending for the 2011-12 season but there is for the franchise in Atlanta.
Dudley is granted job security after the team’s second playoff berth in franchise history. He’s given an extension to help focus on the long term prospects of the franchise and not just the immediate future. Executive vice-president Don Waddell, a holdover from previous ownership, lays a financial game plan that will keep the fans coming all while profiting off the successful product on the ice.
With the Thrashers remaining, the league is not forced into realignment to make way for a team in Winnipeg that forces other teams into super-divisions and a playoff format that does not make common sense. Rather, the league stays in the small division format and sticks to the best eight from each conference to battle it out for top spots. Teams from the Southeast Division stand a better chance at playoff appearances, helping the long term stability of Carolina, Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida and Atlanta.
And as for the Hurricanes, with no obvious successor on the business side of things, Jim Rutherford cedes his GM position to Ron Francis but remains team president, eventually serving as the point person for Peter Karmanos’ sale of the team and retiring shortly after.
Good fortune comes Atlanta’s way in the form of grade-A prospects that find their way into their ranks. Connor Hellebuyck is nabbed in the fifth round. A slipped season sees Patrik Laine fall into their laps. The team inches a step closer to a Stanley Cup and they just may pull it off.
Now, that’s an ending fit for a movie.