FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

Though NHL officials still deny a report the Atlanta Thrashers are about to relocate to Winnipeg, Manitoba, leading to the AHL’s Moose moving to St. John’s, Newfoundland, fans and officials in Atlanta might have already said and heard otherwise.

Only about 200 Thrashers fans showed up Saturday to tailgate outside Philips Arena for the team’s annual “select-a-seat” event held for current and potential season ticket holders to check out the seats, look at the ice and talk about the upcoming NHL draft. And it hardly helped that Harry the Hawk, the mascot of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks that are also owned by the Atlanta Spirit Group, rode up on a scooter, hopped off and handed out high-fives before stopping to put his mouth over the head of a bystanders wearing a Thrashers jersey.

About 25 times that many people showed up for Whalers Sports and Entertainment’s FanFest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford last Aug. 14 to meet, greet and get autographs from 22 former Hartford Whalers players, some of whom hadn’t played in Connecticut in 30 years. And many of the 5,000 fans waited more than three hours for signatures.

Gee, wonder which place is more gung-ho for professional hockey?

Then on Tuesday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed didn’t seem too concerned that one of the city’s four professional sports teams was on the verge of leaving town.

“Any time we lose a major sports franchise it is tough. It’s going to hurt the city, but we are going to withstand it just fine,” Reed told reporters, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We have a lot of positive things going on in the sports franchise space that I think we will be announcing pretty soon that will offset it a bit.”

That was in sharp contrast to the comments of Sam Katz, the mayor in Winnipeg who has been fighting hard to attract an NHL team back to Manitoba. The NHL has been criticized for a lack of fight in trying to keep a hockey team in Atlanta, especially compared to the drawn-out process the league has gone through to get the Phoenix Coyotes to remain in Arizona. But officials in Glendale, Ariz., are willing to share the burden as the city council recently voted 5-2 to commit another $25 million to the NHL as it tries to find a buyer to keep the team in town.

That’s certainly not the case in Atlanta, where the Journal-Constitution said the last viable option for a local buyer for a team that missed the playoffs in 10 of 11 seasons and has never won a playoff series dropped out on Monday.

So it’s basically, “Bye, bye NHL” now that Atlanta Spirit reportedly has reached a $170 million deal with Winnipeg ownership group True North Sports & Entertainment and the NHL. The purchase price reportedly is $110 million, which would go to Atlanta Spirit and owner Bruce Levenson, who will receive $20 million of the $60 relocation fee that will go to the NHL. Speculation was the NHL was using that money to prop up losses it has and will continue to have in owning and operating the Phoenix Coyotes until a suitable buyer can be found. There was no relocation fee when the Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas in 1993, the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1995, the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996 and the Whalers moved to North Carolina in 1997.

“The Thrashers, as you know, are in an extraordinary position because of the amount of losses that are associated with the team,” Reed said. “It’s not a lack of the city being willing to step up and do something about it. It is a partner with deep enough pockets to be willing to sustain pretty significant losses. We have not yet had any individuals in our community who are prepared to take that one.”

Still, Thrashers fans are upset with the NHL and especially commissioner Gary Bettman, just as Hartford fans were and have been since before and after Whalers owner Peter Karmanos bolted for North Carolina in 1997. They still hold Bettman and Karmanos responsible for not giving Hartford a fair shot at keeping the only major league professional team in Connecticut sports history.

And Thrashers fans are upset Bettman and the NHL haven’t pledged support like they did to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix. Bettman has been very quiet about matters as the situation in Atlanta continues to deteriorate while folks in Winnipeg wait patiently to celebrate the return of the NHL to the Canadian prairie city. It’s similar to 1980 when the NHL stood by as financially strapped Atlanta Flames owner Tom Cousins sold the team to a Canadian who moved it to Calgary and then won a Stanley Cup nine years later.

“If this goes through, I can promise you I will never go to another hockey game or an NHL event as long as I live,” one Thrashers fan told the Journal-Constitution. “I won’t give them another dime of my money. They have not stood up for this team. They stand by and watch everything go down. If they hadn’t touched Phoenix (to keep the Coyotes from moving to Winnipeg) we wouldn’t be in this mess. They wouldn’t be rushing to sell to this group.”

A Thrashers season ticket holder added, “We’ve been like the redheaded stepchild of Atlanta sports. (The Atlanta Spirit puts) money into the Hawks, and I appreciate that for the basketball team, but hockey is a great game, too, and in this market in particular you’ve got to market.”

Reports said a deal between Atlanta Spirit and True North, owned by David Thomson and Mark Chipman, to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg could be completed by the end of the week. That now seems unlikely, especially since NHL officials usually don’t like to make a major announcement during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But it seems only a matter of time before the Moose pack their bags and head to the land of screech considering the Thrashers have had among the lowest attendance in the NHL for years and lost more than $20 million last season. The St. John’s Telegram said a news conference outlining the transfer of the Moose is planned for Friday in Newfoundland, but the delay in Winnipeg should push that back to next week.

“There are certain things that first have to happen, not the least of which is the NHL deal has to fall in place,” former premier Danny Williams told The Telegram.

To expedite matters, the announcement could come after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night and before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Bruins or Lightning and the Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night.

Williams reportedly will purchase the franchise from Chipman, the governor of the Moose and a former chairman of the executive committee of AHL Board of Governors. He is also the founder and chairman of True North Holdings Ltd., which built the 15,000-seat MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg.

St. John’s was the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top affiliate for 14 years before relocating to Toronto in 2005 and becoming the Marlies. The main tenant in Mile One Center then was the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Fog Devils until they were sold to Montreal interests in 2008 and became the Junior de Montreal.

Now former St. John’s Maple Leafs director of operations Glenn Stanford, the president and governor of the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, reportedly will take over the new St. John’s franchise. But the team first would have to reach a lease agreement with St. John’s Sports and Entertainment, though that seems a formality with SJSE’s desire to have another AHL team and this likely the city’s best chance to get one.

But a new AHL team would want some assistance, just like Winnipeg in its NHL bid.

“Call it a travel subsidy, call it economic development or whatever form you like, but the economic spinoff (of an AHL team) would be significant,” Williams told The Telegram. “You’d have a payroll of $2 million or $3 million a year, and that doesn’t even include the visiting teams and visiting fans coming in for games.”

The Abbotsford Heat, which cost their British Columbia city $1.2 million in its second AHL season in 2010-11, receives special travel compensation since its nearest opponent is the Moose, who are two time zones away.

The Moose have been the Canucks’ top affiliate for years, but the transfer of Atlanta to Winnipeg would make the new St. John’s team the affiliate of the new Manitoba franchise. The Thrashers’ top affiliate has been the Chicago Wolves, but because Chicago owns the AHL franchise, the minor league team is not part of the NHL transaction, so the Wolves would have to find an NHL partner.

The Winnipeg Jets were an original member of the World Hockey Association in 1973 and joined the NHL six years later, along with the Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Edmonton Oilers. But the Jets moved to Phoenix 15 years ago and became the Coyotes, who also have had among the lowest NHL attendance and lost millions for several years.

CALDER CUP FINALS BEGIN FRIDAY NIGHT

The 75th Calder Cup finals begin Friday night at 8:30 at the Toyota Center in Houston, where the Aeros reached the title round Tuesday night when South Windsor native Jon DiSalvatore scored with 1:13 left to beat the Hamilton Bulldogs 4-3 in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

The Houston captain jammed a loose puck from a scrum between Drew MacIntyre’s pads, and the Aeros then survived a last-minute onslaught by the Bulldogs, who were trying to join the 1960 Rochester Americans and 1989 Adirondack Red Wings as the only teams to rally from a 0-3 hole to win a best-of-seven series. But unlike the Americans against Cleveland and Red Wings against Hershey, the Bulldogs lost in Game 7 of the conference finals for the second consecutive year. In 2010, they dropped a 4-2 decision to the Texas Stars on home ice.

“I don’t know what that mad scramble was at the end with the time just ticking away,” DiSalvatore told the Houston Chronicle. “The crowd was so loud. I couldn’t even watch. I was looking the other way and just hoping our guys that do what they do got the job done, and they did. My heart was racing. It was incredible.”

After seeing their 3-0 lead wiped out by the pesky Bulldogs, led by MacIntyre and former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Nigel Dawes, the Aeros regrouped and improved to 6-0 in Game 7s, tying the Maine Mariners for the most such wins without a loss. They scored two goals nine seconds apart in the eighth minute, survived a Bulldogs rally and won the Robert W. Clarke Trophy to advance to the Calder Cup finals against the Binghamton Senators, who never trailed while sweeping the Charlotte Checkers in the Eastern Conference finals.

The 30-year-old DiSalvatore has five goals and four assists in 18 playoff games after getting a career-high 28 goals and 33 assists while playing in all 80 games in the regular season. Former AHL Rookie of the Year Patrick O’Sullivan leads the Aeros with four goals and 11 assists in the postseason, and 21-year-old rookie goalie Matt Hackett, whose uncle Jeff was MVP of the 1990 Calder Cup playoffs with the champion Springfield Indians, is 12-6 with a 2.56 GAA, .896 save percentage and one shutout.

The Aeros have reached the finals after successive seven-game series wins that epitomize the team T-shirts that say they play for each other (on the front) and will do whatever it takes (on the back).

“You can go around the league and find maybe more talented teams than our team on paper,” DiSalvatore said, “but character-wise, from top to bottom, the depth that’s on our team and the coaching staff, everything has just come together so nicely. We’ve grown so much, and the guys have bought into the process of maturing as people and as athletes.

“You can see that all come together in the (last) 20 minutes of a hockey game, everything that we battled through to persevere and come out on top. That’s what makes it so special. We put all that time in throughout the year for a moment like that. That’s why this sport is so special.”

The Aeros, the top affiliate of the Minnesota Wild, finished second in the West Division and sixth overall in the regular season with a 46-28-1-5 record. Led by rookie coach Mike Yeo, who won a Stanley Cup as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, the Aeros defeated Peoria in the division semifinals (4-0), West Division champion Milwaukee in the division finals (4-3) and the North Division champion Bulldogs in the conference finals (4-3) to reach the Calder Cup finals for the first time since winning the title in 2003.

The Senators finished fifth in the East Division and rallied from a 3-1 deficit and won four overtime games to beat Atlantic Division runner-up Manchester in the first round (4-3) and then beat Atlantic Division champion Portland in the second round (4-2) and Charlotte in the conference finals (4-0). Center Ryan Potulny, whose fifth-overtime goal for Philadelphia in 2008 ended the longest game in AHL history, shares the playoff goal-scoring lead with Dawes with 14 and faced the Aeros this season as a member of the Rockford IceHogs before traded on Feb. 28 from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Ottawa Senators with a second-round pick in June for former Bridgeport Sound Tigers defenseman Chris Campoli and a conditional seventh-round pick in 2012. Potulny also has 11 assists and leads the team in points (25) and plus-minus (plus-11). Other major threats are right wing Ryan Keller (8, 14), left wing Kaspars Daugavins (10, 7) and center Zack Smith (6, 11). Rookie Robin Lehner (10-2, 2.41 GAA, .932 save percentage, two shutouts in 13 games) and veteran Barry Brust (2-3, 3.45, .889 in six games) are a formidable goaltending tandem.

The Senators’ first-year coach is Kurt Kleinendorst, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 1980 who never played in the NHL. His brother, Scot, was selected in the fifth round that year and played in the NHL with the Rangers, Whalers and Washington Capitals.

“It feels like it’s been a month,” Kurt Kleinendorst told the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. “It’s time to get on with it. Everybody’s excited. Nobody cared who we played, we just wanted to get started and get going. I don’t know if the layover’s going to hurt us or help us. We won’t know until Friday when the puck drops.”

When it does drop for Game 1, the Senators will have had nine days off since a 4-3 overtime win May 18, but defenseman Geoff Kinrade doesn’t see the time off as a bad thing after the team had an intra-squad scrimmage Tuesday and spent hours watching video of their possible finals foe.

“We just have to get out of the country club mindset,” Kinrade said. “They’ll be in game mode, and we’ll be rested. They’re both advantages, but I think we’ll be fine.”

The finals will match two former Wolf Pack/Rangers players, Aeros wing Jed Ortmeyer and Senators center Corey Locke, the AHL’s MVP and leading scorer (21 goals, 65 assists) this season. Ortmeyer, who scored with 1:56 left in regulation to send Game 6 to overtime, has four goals and seven assists after signing a professional tryout contract with the Aeros on Jan. 4. Locke, who missed the first three playoff games because of a shoulder injury, has one goal and nine assists in 10 games.

This is the first finals matchup to not have at least one regular-season division since Chicago defeated Bridgeport in 2002. The Senators are the eighth consecutive East Division team to represent the Eastern Conference in the finals, following Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (2004, ’08), Philadelphia (2005) and Hershey (2006, ’07, ’09, ’10).

If it comes down to special teams, the Senators appear to have an edge. They finished last in the AHL with four shorthanded goals in the regular season but have a league-high five in the playoffs. And they’ve been No. 1 on the power play all season. They converted at 22.8 percent in the regular and are 18-for-83 (21.7 percent) in the playoffs.

The Aeros will host Game 2 on Saturday night, with Games 3-4-5 at the Broome County Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton on June 1, 3 and 4. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, will be in Houston on June 7 and 9. The Binghamton facility hasn’t hosted a Calder Cup finals game since May 10, 1982, when the Whalers were on the way to a 4-1 series loss to the New Brunswick Hawks. Like the parent Whalers, the Binghamton Whalers played Brass Bonanza after the team scored, and their logo was a Hartford Whalers logo turned on its side, forming a convenient “B” to signify the team’s home.

Though successful most of the time, the last Binghamton Whalers team in 1989-90 had the worst record in AHL history (11-60-9). It was then sold to the Rangers, and the Whalers moved their affiliation to Springfield, where the seven remaining players from the disastrous 1989-90 Binghamton team helped the Indians to their seventh and final Calder Cup title. Binghamton then was home to the UHL’s B.C. Icemen in 1997-2002 before the birth of the Senators, who made the playoffs their first three seasons but missed for five in a row before returning this year. Former Whalers center Don Nachbaur coached the team for one year before resigning for personal reasons and being replaced by Kleinendorst, who signed a two-year contract that is likely to be extended. Nachbaur, the Whalers’ third-round pick in 1979, is now in the second year of a five-year contract to coach the Western Hockey League’s Spokane Chiefs. He played 15 seasons in the NHL, AHL and Austrian Elite League with the Whalers, Oilers, Flyers, Indians, Moncton Alpines, New Haven Nighthawks, Hershey Bears and Graz EC and coached 16 years with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, Tri-City Americans and Chiefs and the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms and Senators.

GOLF TOURNAMENT TO BENEFIT WOLF PACK FAN RYAN GORDON

Congregation Beth Israel will host the Ryan C. Gordon Memorial Golf Outing on June 9 at The Traditions in Wallingford. The Kiddush Cup was renamed five years ago after the 19-year-old Gordon, a young congregant who passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. A week before he died, Ryan requested his unused college funds be donated to three charities that he felt had benefited him throughout his lifetime. His hope was his gifts would inspire others to give.

Because of his generosity, Beth Israel, in honoring Ryan’s legacy, has donated $50,000 from the Kiddush Cup proceeds to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Ryan Gordon Endowment Fund at the Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, the Yale Cancer Center’s Thoracic Oncology Program and the Ryan Gordon/Hartford Wolf Pack Community Scholars Fund at Trinity College in Hartford.

The endowment fund at Kingswood-Oxford is a financially-driven scholarship that will enable a deserving student to attend the school’s annual Team-Tobati trip to Paraguay. Team Tobati is an all-volunteer non-profit organization dedicated to working with and assisting the poor of Tobati, Paraguay.

The Yale Cancer Center’s Thoracic Oncology Program receives donations to a special tissue bank that is doing research for the early detection of thoracic cancers. The Ryan Gordon/Hartford Wolf Pack Community Foundation Scholars Fund was established to provide deserving Hartford youths with the opportunity to learn to play the game of hockey that Ryan loved so much while a fan of the Wolf Pack.

The scramble tournament has a 9 a.m. shotgun after registration, a continental breakfast and a putting contest. Fox-61 sports director Rich Coppola will emcee the 19th hole festivities that include men’s, women’s and mixed-team prizes. Entry fee is $155, and dinner only is $45. To learn more about the tournament and sponsorship opportunities or to download a brochure, go to www.bethisraelwallingford.org and follow Kiddush Cup link or contact Todd Schwartz at 203-235-4314 or Phyllis Gordon at 203-269-5094 or pgordon@snet.net.

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