Last week, I took a trip to North Carolina to visit family. But much like my other trips, I had to get in my sports fixes. Most of the time I will get my fix through baseball (Majors or Minors-and yes I saw the Durham Bulls play), football (college and pro), and college basketball. Hockey hasn’t been on my list of spots to see. However my son wanted to try a hockey game on for size, so we went to see a Carolina Hurricanes game, the final one of the year against Tampa Bay Lightning. For him, it was his first ever hockey game in person. For me? First game I’ve attended in 7 years.
I live in the Atlanta area.
Obviously, the Thrashers have been gone for the last 6 years up to Winnipeg to become the Jets. I considered a few times of driving to Nashville to see a Predators game but never took a chance (was really close this year when the Preds hosted my favorite team the Red Wings-I’m from Detroit originally, what can I say?) large in part because tickets were expensive. But I was able to score some reasonable tickets at PNC Arena to see the Hurricanes to play the playoff-bound and home-ice driven Tampa Bay Lightning. What I got was a great game to watch as it went into overtime and the Hurricanes won, thus giving the Carolina faithful a happy ending to another sad season of failing to make the playoffs (9 straight seasons now), though a large portion of fans had to have driven up from Tampa as there were plenty of blue jerseys with the bolt (or as my son called it, the Flash Gordon logo). But I realized how much I missed going to hockey games for sure.
However, what stuck out was actually when I was leaving PNC Arena as a lady Carolina Hurricanes fan (must have been a season ticket holder) saw one of the ushers she knewand said “I’m sick and tired of saying see you in 6 months in early April! 9 years has been long enough.”
I HAD to chime in and said, “at least you have a team….I’ve gone 7 years without ANY hockey as the team I was near flew to Winnipeg!”
The Canes fan laughed and said “and sadly, we have the blueprint of the guy who sent the Thrashers to Winnipeg.”
Well, aside from Gary Bettman, it was Don Waddell, who holds the same title as President of the Carolina Hurricanes like he was the Atlanta Thrashers. So obviously, it got me thinking: What were the reasons why the Thrashers failed in Atlanta?
Living in Atlanta, I’m tired of the nonsensical drivel from outsiders that say Atlanta isn’t a good sports town, and the fans are superficial. And when the Thrashers moved, the Canadian fans really dumped on the Atlanta fan base over & over (thus building inside of me the wish that the Stanley Cup never resides in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and ESPECIALLY Winnipeg ever). Atlanta is similar to most towns: when the home teams win, fans pack it in. When the home teams lose, plenty of empty seats galore. Just look at it all over. It happens in the hardcore places of New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, etc. But when you have an expansion team that fails to make the playoffs in 10 of 11 years where it is not INCREDIBLY hard to get in, you’re bound to be in massive trouble. So let’s look at the key reasons why the Thrashers did not make it in Atlanta…..and no, it WASN’T because of the fans.
1ST REASON: ATLANTA SPIRIT GROUP, THE OWNERS: Atlanta Spirit Group, or ASG bought the Thrashers and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks from AOL Time Warner in 2003, which many thought wasn’t a bad thing as it got out of the doldrums of having a corporation running it. However, the owners bickered with each other and caused rifts (mostly brought out with the Hawks than the Thrashers, but it probably didn’t do wonders for the Thrashers either). However, one report after the Thrashers moved was that the ASG wanted to sell the Thrashers immediately after they bought them. How true that is, I honestly don’t know, but it would make sense that Atlanta never really became a player on the free agent market especially when the NHL installed the salary cap 3 years later. And I don’t want to hear about how the Thrashers ran out and got Bobby Holik when the free agency started with the salary cap, given how he flopped with the Rangers. But the do-nothing ownership kept Atlanta from making big signings, keeping players (though they tried to keep Ilya Kovalchuk, but he rejected a huge contract), and kept certain inept front-office guys who was not cut out for the job to keep their jobs (or in some cases REWARD the guys for their poor jobs). And then of course when the announcement was made the Thrashers left Winnipeg, some of the ASG owners acted like they were going to cry for letting the team walk. I’m sure they were very upset….
2ND REASON: GM DON WADDELL: Waddell served as GM of the Thrashers for the first 10 seasons before being rewarded for his 1 playoff in 10 seasons as executive VP and co-chair of the executive committee in Atlanta’s final season. Now, for any expansion team, a GM probably does have a grace period to set up the franchise for a run. Now we see Vegas start off on fire, but it is definitely a rarity. The Lightning, Senators, Predators, and Blue Jackets all had to take a while to dump the “expansion” moniker. The Thrashers were no different. But many pointed out to the drafts early on that helped. Yes, Patrik Stefan was a flop, but let’s face it, unless your last name was Sedin in the 1999 Entry Draft, it was one of the worst drafts in this time. But then it was Heatley, Kovalchuk, Kari Lehtonen (though I wanted Jay Bouwmeester instead), and Braydon Coburn were all good picks. In the 2002-2003 season, the Thrashers made strides as Kovalchuk and Heatley were starting out and becoming stars including Heatley’s amazing All-Star Game performance (which netted him popularity and his own EA Sports cover for NHL 2004) and things looked great going into 2003-2004. A tragedy struck (more on that in a minute) and then the Thrashers struggled to build off the 2002-2003 season. The drafts started to become sketchy as Atlanta drafted the likes of Boris Valabik, Alex Bourret (who?-I really cannot remember this and had Atlanta not traded down they could have ended up with Anze Kopitar, Marc Staal, or I’d settle with Devin Setoguchi, which San Jose drafted at Atlanta’s original spot), no 2007 first rounder for rental Keith Tkachuk, Zach Bogosian (could have had Tyler Myers there), Alex Burmistrov (could have netted Vladimir Tarasenko instead). So poor drafts by Waddell stung.
And then came the trades. The one that was just beyond awful even then and I still cannot figure out why they made it despite being in the playoff chase in 2006-2007 was trading Coburn to Philadelphia for an aging and underachieving Alexei Zhitnik. Coburn was a reliable force for the Flyers while Zhitnik bombed out in Atlanta and did not do a single thing memorable and bought him out one year after. Instead of making a push to get better after their lone playoff, Waddell gutted the Thrashers save for Kovalchuk, fired Bob Hartley and named himself head coach. The Thrashers had the third worst record in the NHL that year. 2 years later, Waddell traded Kovalchuk for pretty much scrapheap led by Johnny Oduya. It wasn’t until Rick Dudley actually made decent moves in the team’s final year in Atlanta netting Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and a couple of others as Atlanta looked to have a quality team ready before the move to Winnipeg. But what bothered me is that Waddell’s ineptitude and the ownership allowing him to remain that inept for a long period of time was a key reason why the Thrashers were never any good save for 2006-2007.
And after being in Carolina and overhearing fans talk about Waddell, they’re worried he will end the Canes tenure in Raleigh since he looks to be in full control of that franchise.
3RD REASON: THE TRAGIC ACCIDENT OF DANY HEATLEY AND DAN SNYDER: One thing about Atlanta sports is that Atlanta fans believe the city itself is cursed with its sports teams. The Braves with only 1 World Series win in that major run from 1991-2005. The Falcons with Super Bowl LI. The Hawks for being the Hawks. The Thrashers really got hit hard with theirs early. Heatley was supposed to be the next big thing in the NHL after the 2002-2003 season. He got into a car accident with teammate Dan Snyder in the car. Both suffered injuries, but Snyder’s were fatal. Despite Heatley being able to recover, he wasn’t the same player for Atlanta and probably was haunted by being responsible for the death of his friend, requested a trade when the 2005-2006 season began (2004-2005 was a lockout). Atlanta traded him to Ottawa for Marian Hossa and Greg deVries. Both were great players for Atlanta, but it did take wind out of the sails. 2 years later, Atlanta traded Hossa to Pittsburgh for another crummy Waddell trade. And the bottom just fell out.
4TH REASON: INABILITY TO KEEP ILYA KOVALCHUK IN THE 2010 SEASON: To be fair, it may not have been Don Waddell’s fault on this one in part because if the rumors of the contract offers were true, Kovalchuk would have been one of the league’s highest paid players. However, once again, Waddell made a crummy trade with the Devils. And when the trade was made, the first thing that crossed my mind was “in three years we will be calling this team the Saskatoon Thrashers.” I was right on the country, just wrong on the province. It was the last gate attraction the Thrashers had for the fans. I also remember when Kovalchuk was about to be traded, that I bought a couple of upper level seats at Philips Arena for $3 each, and after the first period, the Blue Crew (the Thrashers girls) took the dozen of us in the upper level and put is in the lower level for the remainder of the game. It was getting bad.
5TH REASON: THE LOGO & UNIFORMS WERE FLAT-OUT COMICAL: Of all of these, this is obviously the most petty and superficial. Yes, I hold the original Thrashers home jersey and the blue jersey, but Atlanta wanted to keep up with the bird-themed team names of the Hawks and Falcons and gave it the state bird (to which many fans would give the bird for that idea after) for the team name. But the logo looked something more of a Saturday Morning cartoon show with a Superman shield of what looked more like a character from the Sonic the Hedgehog game than an actual bird. The away jersey was the “alternate” logo, which I still don’t know what it is supposed to look like: I guess they wanted to make it look like a Batman signal more than anything. It was supposed to be a T, but to me it actually looked like a Y and the color pattern for that jersey was hideous. For the 2003-2004 season, they debuted the sky blue color jersey as teams were trying to make the “alternate” unis cute. One sleeve had the city name while the other was blank. It would have looked good if they didn’t have that and made a logo change with it. Then came the “red” uniforms that evidently inspired to be like an NBA jersey (though Dallas also did one similar which was bad too). It looked too much like a comic book and much like the last run of Atlanta, it felt like a joke. And nobody wants to buy a joke of things.
6TH REASON: GARY BETTMAN: Bettman is a pure crook and I cannot wait until this egomaniac is no longer associated with the NHL in any manner. End of discussion on that part. He went above & beyond for a dying franchise in Phoenix that had been in the doldrums far longer than Atlanta had been (and still a dying franchise now). He ran out and saved the Coyotes from moving back to Winnipeg. For Atlanta? Nah. He scolded the Atlanta fans who didn’t want to pay tickets for consistently losing and paying to watch a garbage product on the ice. Yet somehow he praised the city when the Thrashers were born as they were a hot ticket early on, and even outdrew the Chicago Blackhawks who were really down in that same time period. But he opted to do everything in his power to keep the Coyotes from leaving Phoenix. But nothing for Atlanta. It sounded like a company headed by former NHL player Anson Carter had a legit offer to keep the Thrashers in Atlanta but it just fell apart without any real explanation. Could it have been Bettman’s prints pushing to get the team to Winnipeg and True North? Smelled like it.
There are probably more reasons why the Thrashers failed in Atlanta, but those are the key ones to me. I like to think had Atlanta got rid of Waddell after the 2007-2008 season and replaced him with Rick Dudley after that, there may be playoff hockey in Atlanta starting tonight given with how he added key players in the final season. But obviously, the truth is and we see it even today, that any professional sports team that has an ownership that cares with a front office that is competent, they will succeed. But in the Thrashers case, they didn’t have that. And it is unfortunate.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat