Atlanta Thrashers president Don Waddell traveled the country looking for potential buyers who would be willing to keep the franchise in Atlanta and met with more than 20 individuals and groups and tried various approaches, he said in a conference call on Tuesday.
In the end, none of them succeeded and the only potential buyer he could find on behalf of his ownership group, which was committed to selling the team to stop publicly documented financial losses, was one that wanted to move it to Winnipeg -- True North Sports and Entertainment.
"We probably had 20-plus people that inquired,"Waddell said. "That doesn't mean they're all qualified. We had a lot of people that were trying to put groups together, seek investors so probably at the end of the day we had 20-plus groups. And probably only a handful of those people had the resources and would qualify to be able to buy a franchise.
"And as we've stated publicly to date, we didn't have one offer that was even worth talking about.”
On a day that was personally difficult for him -- he was the team's first and only general manager from expansion until last summer, when he was promoted to president and Rick Dudley was promoted to general manager -- Waddell provided some answers to many of the questions that until now had largely remained secret or shrouded in uncertainty.
In describing his mood, he said "disappointed is an understatement"and that he would not move with the franchise to Winnipeg if the NHL Board of Governors approves the sale, as expected, at its June 21 meeting.
As recently as six weeks ago, Waddell said he thought the franchise was safe. But in the last three weeks, it began negotiations with True North, which ultimately led to Tuesday's announcement.
Atlanta Spirit, owners of the Thrashers, had been trying to sell the team for years. Complicating that effort was the fact that the group itself was embroiled in a legal dispute with one faction of owners pitted against another. That legal battle lasted more than five years and was not resolved until December 2010.
"I can tell you that the effort has been going on for many years and there has been not only a lot of effort but a lot of money spent trying to find it,"Waddell said. "We've been trying and we spent a lot of energy and money. I can tell you personally, the last six months, this is what I spent my whole life on, traveling around the country, meeting with people from different groups. And our owners have stated publicly that they're willing to take a lot less amount of money to keep the franchise here. There's a lot of benefits to keeping it here in Philips Arena, which rights they own. So I think all the reports of them trying not to find buyers to the team are completely inaccurate and false, and I can tell you that we talked to every person that reached out to us and we reached out to many, many people that had shown interest in franchises before. At the end of the day, it is what it is. We couldn't find a buyer that would want to keep the team here.”
Waddell said he would encounter people or groups who had between $5 and $20 million to invest. He said he would try to marry them in the hopes of creating a single group with the resources to buy the team, but in the end he said he could not create one that not only had the capital but also the operational funds which would be necessary to cover potential losses.
Waddell couldn't point to any single factor that went wrong with the franchise -- whether it was being forced to trade All-Star wing Marian Hossa in 2008 after Hossa refused to sign a contract extension and whether that created a downward spiral -- but he said creating a winning hockey team is about more than one player. However, he did say the franchise faced a lot of "unusual circumstances,"a reference to the death of player Dan Snyder in 2003 as a result of a car accident in which he was a passenger in the car of All-Star teammate Dany Heatley. Heatley ultimately asked for and received a trade to Ottawa where he recorded back-to-back 50-goal seasons and was part of a Stanley Cup finalist squad.
The Thrashers never posted back-to-back winning seasons and only made one playoff appearance, never winning a postseason game. Waddell said that was a great factor. Atlanta ranked 28th in attendance this past season.
"There's no doubt,"he said. "If we had more success, maybe we would've had a better turnout at the gate. That's something we always look back at. If you have success -- and I said it before -- if we could've duplicated the year after we won the division (2007) and went to the playoffs, I think we were set up to continue to try to build momentum in the marketplace, but that didn't happen.
"When you look back at things, if you can win more, certainly you're going to get people excited, so it played a part in it. I think there's lots of things that played a part in our lack of success, and that would have to be right at the top of the list.”
While Waddell received queries from Atlanta media about what went wrong, curious Winnipeg reporters wanted to know more about the team they soon expect to get.
Dudley, he pointed out, received a contract extension within the last few months. Coach Craig Ramsay also is under contract. Among the biggest issues is the contract status of pending free agent Andrew Ladd, the team's captain and leading goal-scorer last season. Negotiations were ongoing, Waddell said, but stalled towards the end of the season, especially as talk of a sale became more serious. Waddell said the talks "got real close"to completion.
Both of the team's All-Star defensemen, Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, are
under contract, with Byfuglien signing a long-term deal last season. Thirteen players total are under contract, Waddell said, and some other key ones who are not, like defenseman Zach Bogosian, are restricted free agents.
"Other than Andrew Ladd, we have very few unrestricted free agents that we're talking about,"Waddell said.
He said in recent weeks he has held discussions with Winnipeg business Mark Chipman, who runs the True North group, about various subjects. He said he expected the players -- only a few have families with children -- to get the assistance they need in relocating.
But the organization could not begin to notify players officially of the sale until it was announced. Not all of them have been reached.
"There hasn't been enough time in the day,"Waddell said. "I have a list of players to continue to call.”