Thrashers fans held a rally to try and save the team days before the announced sale to a Winnipeg group. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
In the beginning, the Atlanta Thrashers had it all. They had a growing and vibrant world-class market that just a few years earlier hosted the Summer Olympics. They had the financial backing of entertainment conglomerate Time Warner and they had the media savvy of Turner Broadcasting System.
There was no way NHL hockey was going to fail a second time in Atlanta. It had too many things going for it. But 12 years later, the franchise failed in a big way in Georgia and is now on its way to Winnipeg, pending approval from the league’s board of governors.
I got to witness the excitement in Atlanta first hand in 1999. On the eve of the entry draft, the team flew me down from Toronto to take part in the Thrashers draft-day party at Philips Arena. It was over-the-top first-class treatment from start to end, the kind that leaves you with an out-of-body experience.
Stretch limousine pickup at the airport for my wife and I. Dinner at five-star restaurants with endless wining and dining, sitting with team executives and corporate muckety-mucks. All because the Thrashers considered me a “draft guru” and they wanted to educate their fans and corporate box-holders on the details of selecting teenage kids to eventually grow the franchise into a powerhouse.
The Thrashers, in one of their first personnel moves, acquired Andrew Brunette from the Nashville Predators for a draft pick five days before the entry draft. And in the 1999 expansion draft, Atlanta selected 26 players not protected by the 26 NHL teams. Veteran right winger Ed Ward was picked from Calgary.
So for the draft-day party, the Thrashers also flew in Brunette and his wife and Ward to introduce them to Georgia and become part of the celebration. Between them signing autographs and answering questions about moving to the South and skating on ice in Dixie and me cautioning fans not to expect too much too soon from 18-year-old draftees, there was a lot of hope, excitement and extravagance.
It was the halcyon days of the Atlanta Thrashers.
I remember the raucous atmosphere at the draft-day party when it was announced (the draft took place in Boston that year) the Thrashers selected Patrik Stefan first overall. I remember saying great things about his leadership, maturity and offensive attributes (hey, we were all wrong about him together, weren’t we?). Atlanta selected Luke Sellars in the second round and I probably said something about the Thrashers coming out of the day with two bona fide future NHL stars.
I remember the team taking all of us, including radio play-by-play man Scott Ferrall, to an Atlanta Braves game and sitting us in the first row next to the Ted Turner/Jane Fonda seats. I remember getting a friendly ovation when they showed us on the big screen and introduced us over the loudspeaker. I remember driving through Buckhead and its busy nightlife with the roof open in the stretch limo and not retiring until early in the morning.
That was the Thrashers way to celebrate a new franchise and a new beginning. Throw money and drama at everything and the people will respond.
Sadly, the franchise struggled on the ice, the Time Warner and Turner people eventually left the party and nobody wanted to clean up the mess. That era is over and the Thrashers are dead and buried. NHL hockey will never return to Atlanta.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com with his blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.