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Is hockey on the outs in Atlanta?

The continuing squabble over the ownership of the Atlanta Thrashers, coupled with declining interest in pro hockey in warmer climes, may mean the end of NHL hockey in the city.Financial issues continue to plague the ownership of the Atlanta Thrashers (NHL) and the Atlanta Hawks (NBA), with the eight-man Atlanta Spirit group – which also controls Philips Arena operating rights — going back to court this month to determines who controls what.

And while we’re sure the Hawks are in solid shape to continue playing at Philips Arena, the fate of the Thrashers is not so sure.

The issue is the same issue facing every NHL team in a southern clime: how to attract a solid base of fans. Except for Dallas, no southern team has managed to do this, and the Thrashers are no exception, ranking 29th in attendance in the 30-team NHL. Local television viewage is up marginally, but not enough to make up for the lack of fannies in the seats. And the NHL is a league that still relies heavily on gate revenue.

Could the Thrashers be sold or contracted? Some in NHL circles argue the league should seriously contracting the Thrashers and the Phoenix Coyotes, but that’s not very likely: we can’t Gary Bettman, the originator of the Southern Strategy, so openly admitting defeat. A sale of the team, especially with the ongoing legal fight over ownership, is much more likely.

And we’re guessing the sale won’t go to anyone enamored of keeping the team at Philips Arena. Yes, the discussion over alternative homes for NHL hockey can begin — suburban Toronto, Winnipeg, Kansas City, Quebec City, Hamilton — but for now, let’s just say no one would be surprised if the money-losing team (reportedly $21 million a year) was sold by an ownership group that quite frankly care a whole lot more about basketball than hockey.