This morning, the MTS Centre in Winnipeg is packed. There won’t be a hockey game for months yet, but nervous Winnipeggers want to leave nothing to chance. The last time they left their hockey team unattended, somebody dismantled the 5x7m portrait of the Queen and moved the team to sunny Phoenix.
The deal’s done, and the NHL is returning to Winnipeg. And leaving Atlanta. For a second time, to Canada. It’s unlikely that the 9th largest metro in the United States will get a third chance soon. The Thrashers averaged around 13,000 per game in their last season, the MTS Centre will play to sell-out crowds - of around 2,000 more bodies. The people of Winnipeg have to convince themselves that they will support a team through thick and thin (the old Jets were frequently thin), and eager to pay the exorbitant prices of the lower bowl, and they have a lot of critics to prove wrong. They may end up play-acting their fervour, nervously nursing the stereotype of their die-hardedness where a tepid connection to an unknown new team would appreciate organic growth.
Thrashers fans - and don’t for a minute doubt that there are Thrashers fans - have to be mulling over what exactly went wrong. Many, many things. In twelve years, the ‘organic growth’ of a fanbase has been slow to take, or rather, cut back at seemingly every turn by a series of events that the blame for wavers between ‘freak chance’ and ‘inept management,’ and never as a reflection on a large city that often showed a willingness to give hockey a try, despite the popularity of the Falcons, Braves and Hawks. Success changes everything. In 1996, the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver and won the Stanley Cup in their first year of competition. They won nine straight division titles and another cup before their first decade in Colorado was through. They held a sell-out record. Compare that success with the playoff droughts in Phoenix, Columbus and Atlanta, and it’s little wonder that the Thrashers never quite won Hotlanta’s heart. (And after a few years of non-success, even the Avs are looking at less than stellar ticket sales)
Send in the mis-steps - cue up REM’s Monster - and let’s talk about this.
The pilot project for the NHL in the American deep south, the Flames played eight seasons (1972-1980) in Atlanta before retreating to Calgary (and put-off, for another decade, the wide-scale expansion into the Southern states). Mismanagement, a lack of any sort of television deal, and the WHA sponging money and talent from the whole NHL made Nelson Skalbania’s offer to buy and move the team hard to refuse. Exit Atlanta.
The 26 team NHL granted four franchises in expansion in 1997 - Nashville, Columbus, Minnesota and Atlanta. Nashville entered the league first, having ‘shrewdly’ planned and built an arena prior to securing a professional sports team. The Predators entered the league in 1998, and drafted David Legwand 2nd overall. Legwand has played almost 800 games with the Predators, and although he’s no superstar, he’s had more NHL impact than the sum total of every player Atlanta took in their first draft when they entered the league a year later.
Patrik Stefan was the toast of the 1999 entry draft - this was a big year for Czech hockey. A gold medal in Nagano previous, Jaromir Jagr lead the NHL in scoring for the second consecutive year, and 6’4 Bobby Holik was in the midst of his absolute prime, and seen as the least Stefan could be. Several concussions and a persistent hip injury later, and Stefan’s best in the NHL was a 14 goal, 40 point effort in 2004. He retired in 2008. The two players selected immediately after Stefan are the two most recent winners of the Art Ross Trophy, though on the whole, the 1999 draft was a terrible place to start, as just six players taken have ever appeared on an All-Star team. GM Don Waddell would do worse at the entry draft than Stefan, but we’ll get to that.
The Thrashers got a ‘gimme’ after their 14-win first season, and at the 2000 draft, came away with Dany Heatley. The Thrashers scouts didn’t find a single other player in the draft, but Heatley looked to become a major part in the ‘first’ attempt at building a contender in Georgia. He scored 89 points in his second season, finishing sixth in goals league-wide in 2002-03. Just prior to the 2003-04 season, Heatley spun his Ferrari Modena into a wall, killing teammate Dan Snyder and leaving himself with some serious physical and emotional damage. After months of rehabilitation and a return to the ice, Heatley requested a trade.
The Thrashers in 2004 were still mired in the afterbirth of expansion. Two out of three attempts at finding a franchise player early in the draft had failed - though Ilya Kovalchuk remained (and lead the league in goal-scoring in 04) - and on-ice leadership duties still fell to aging journeymen like Shawn McEachern. Big name free agents stayed away from the un-established young team and goaltending remained something of a carousel. The NHL lockout would be particularly harsh to nascent fanbases like those in Atlanta, washed away by the success of the Falcons and Braves during the lockout. The 2005 All-star Game was to be held in Atlanta, but re-scheduled for 3 years later after the fact.
Swapping Heatley for Marian Hossa helped maintain the impression of forward momentum, but following the lost year, Thrashers management went ‘all-in’ to get the team into the playoffs for the first time. And they nearly did so, having gone all-out in Free Agency, with veteran goalscorer Peter Bondra and goaltender Mike Dunham pushing them to their best ever result. The money spent on these free agents probably contributed to Atlanta being unable to re-sign their leading scorer, Marc Savard, and they went into the next year without a top-line center between Hossa and Kovalchuk.
In 2006-07, the Thrashers finally crossed the threshold into unknown territory, though Waddell made several questionable moves to push the team over the hump. Waddell traded Braydon Coburn for Alexei Zhitnik (a spring-autumn deal, with Coburn outplaying Zhitnik almost immediately), and a king’s ransom of draft picks for veteran Keith Tkachuk. The Thrashers were swept in the first round by the New York Rangers, losing by a combined score of 17-6. Ilya Kovalchuk, a 40 goal scorer in the regular season, had 2 points in the short series. Marian Hossa, who lead the team with 100 points, added a single assist.
The plan was, the plan always is - build on that little taste of success. Return next season stronger and better than ever. The Thrashers started 0-6 in 2007-08, and finished in the same fashion, in the basement and looking to re-tool. Former Thrasher Marc Savard scored the game-winning goal in front of an Atlanta crowd in February, and Marian Hossa was traded to the contender Penguins a few weeks later. The team’s second set of owners began squabbling in 2008. The Thrashers introduced their 4th head coach in 8 years, and once again finished at the bottom of the league.
In the final year of his contract and now-eligible for free agency, Ilya Kovalchuk, the only superstar the club had ever known, made it known that he would be unable to come to an agreement with the Thrashers at the end of the season. Atlanta played the entire 2008-09 campaign with the unhappy Kovalchuk in full-view. Named the team captain in an earlier attempt to placate, the face of the franchise was broadcasting to fans that he wanted nothing to do with Atlanta. He was traded to New Jersey at the deadline, and the Thrashers were left holding the pieces.
As it turns out, 2010-11 was the last season the Atlanta Thrashers would operate. With a new coach, and buoyed by an influx of gritty, playoff-seasoned players - Dustin Byfuglien and new captain Andrew Ladd, as well as continued growth from Evander Kane, Tobias Enstrom and Bryan Little - the Thrashers enjoyed a solid first half, and lead the Southeast division at Christmas. Things took a little turn, as things do (Avs fan here), and the upstarts eventually found themselves returned to earth, but the roster’s future looked, at the very least, promising.
In January, the team’s ownership claimed that the Thrashers had lost $130 million in the last six years. Not a big deal, in the scheme of things, and most attention in the media was still on the Phoenix Coyotes, who had fallen into a persistent, vegetative state, and yet had the league office frantically plugging in new and exotic forms of life support.
Yet, here we are. With Phoenix jacked in, the Atlanta Spirit group must have found their path to sale and re-location oddly simple. The Thrashers have been, up to this point, selling season-tickets, and holding meagre rallies of (maybe) several hundred people. The media, the Canadian media in particular, has shown us the comparative bedlam in Winnipeg.
Still, while ‘proud Canadians’ will waste no breath puffing out their chests and applauding the return of the NHL to Winnipeg and moving hockey ‘back where it belongs,’ I’d recommend taking a moment to pour one out for hockey in Atlanta.
Who knows how things could have gone without Don Waddell, without some rotten circumstance and with a touch of early success? Switch Atlanta’s resumé (10 years, 2 playoff appearances, 1 division title) with Carolina (12 years, 5 playoff appearances, 3 division titles, 2 cup finals, 1 Stanley Cup) and it’s the Hurricanes headed to the Peg.