The Atlanta Thrashers might have already morphed into the Winnipeg Jets, Version 2.0 by the time you read this, but whether the second death of NHL hockey in Atlanta is quick and painless or drawn out and excruciating, it is inevitable. Which means the Thrashers deserve a proper obituary. So here goes:
“Following a lengthy illness brought on by incompetent management, ownership war wounds and wanton neglect, the Atlanta Thrashers, surrounded by a cadre of lawyers, were called to a better, and colder, place. The illegitimate son of Time and Warner, the Thrashers are predeceased by the Atlanta Flames, the city’s downtown nightlife and Patrik Stefan’s superstar potential. Survived by several thousand diehard fans and a 2006-07 Southeast Division banner, the Thrashers will be best remembered for being the only team in NHL history to play more than six seasons and die without winning a single playoff game.”
(If you’re wondering why hockey has failed twice in Atlanta, consider that between the Flames and the Thrashers, the good people of Atlanta have watched 19 NHL seasons. Their teams made the playoffs just seven times, losing all seven series and compiling an overall post-season record of 2-19.)
There are those who will have you believe the Thrashers died – or are on the precipice of doing so – because the NHL left them to whither away while it furiously pumped life-saving blood into the Phoenix Coyotes. The notion falls down on two counts. First, the last thing NHL commissioner Gary Bettman wants is for Atlanta or any one of his expansion/relocation schemes to be a blight on his legacy. To that end, he has spent the past two years aggressively marketing the Thrashers in an attempt to have them sold to someone who would be willing to keep the team in Atlanta. This demise did not happen overnight. Second, if Atlanta’s city council was gullible enough to give the NHL $25 million not once, but twice, in order to offset the Thrashers’ losses, you can bet an agent right now would be doing a Sudoku puzzle while waiting for Thrashers fans to call with their season ticket subscriptions.
So, we’re left to ponder the true reason why the Thrashers left and whether or not Atlanta is truly a hockey market. The sad reality is we’ll never really know because the team has never, ever given the people of Atlanta the opportunity to prove whether it is one or not. Call Atlanta a bad sports town if you will, but neither the Flames nor the Thrashers ever gave the hockey fans in that city reason to cheer or, more importantly, hope.
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that four years before the Thrashers joined the NHL in 1999, Atlanta and not Colorado had been selected as the new home of the Quebec Nordiques. In that case, Atlanta would have received on a silver platter a ready-made powerhouse that won a Cup in its first year and another five years later thanks largely to three future Hall of Famers.
Instead, it started with a rookie GM, an inexperienced coach and arguably the worst No. 1 overall pick from the worst draft crop in NHL history. And things never got much better from that point on. How do you expect anyone to stand by that kind of performance? Much like the Coyotes until recently, the Thrashers never gave their fans a chance. We’re only now learning that Glendale is not a hockey market because the Coyotes have turned the corner on the ice and still struggle mightily to attract more than a small core of loyal fans.
And now Winnipeg, a market that could certainly afford to present its fan base with an awful expansion team for a while, gets a club poised for better things. And therein lies the problem. Building a team from scratch is hard work, a task made all the more difficult when you’re in a non-traditional market and have to work as hard selling the culture of the game as the product itself.
Look at the past four expansion franchises. The Nashville Predators have won exactly one playoff round in 12 years. After a promising start, the Minnesota Wild have hit the skids. The Columbus Blue Jackets are hemorrhaging money while continuing to lose games and the Thrashers are history. Expanding your footprint only works when you’re not stepping on rusty nails.
Now look at the teams that have relocated. It hasn’t worked out very well for the Coyotes, but the Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars have won Stanley Cups and established their cities as viable hockey markets.
The Thrashers’ perennial ineptitude never gave Atlanta the chance to do the same. And that’s why the NHL is gone, never to return.
This column orginally appeared in the May 30, 2011 issue of The Hockey News.
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