I met up with TJ’s owner Tim Ecclestone last week to discuss some the history of hockey in Atlanta as well as the perceived lack of interaction between the current NHL franchise and those who are affiliated with the old Atlanta Flames.
Ecclestone was drafted by the Rangers in 1967, he was then traded to St. Louis during the ’68 expansion. He played in three Stanley Cup Finals with the Blues before spending time in Detroit and Toronto. Then he came to Atlanta in 1974 where he played for the Flames and also became an assistant coach. When the franchise moved to Calgary in 1980, Tim was offered a chance to move with them… Cliff Fletcher telling him that he would be head coach there, or with some NHL club, within two years.
After much thought and consideration to the idea of relocating his family and leaving the business he had here, he decided to remain in Atlanta and has been here ever since. He’s a member of Atlanta’s chapter of the NHL’s alumni group, along with a handful of other former Flames…Tom Lysiak, Eric Vail, Dan Bouchard, Willi Plett… and players from other teams.
In the late 90’s, Tim and the group were excited to learn that the league had awarded the city of Atlanta with another franchise and they availed themselves to help promote the new team. And in the beginning, that is exactly the relationship shared between the alumni group and the new organization.
“The Thrashers came aboard”, Tim stated, “There was Harvey Schiller and his son Derek, and their marketing team. They called us every week to go out there to different places…promoting the team…signing autographs…and try to drum up season tickets”.
These guys were happy to do it too. The sport does have a rich history, contrary to what some northeast hockey elitists may think, and Ecclestone and his former teammates knew that they could be a big help in marketing the team. After all, as he puts it, the Flames didn’t leave town two decades prior due to a lack of interest in the area.
”This city here has a love affair with the Flames…we put 15,000 down there every night. People think it failed…it didn’t fail. Mr. Cousins had a business decision to make”. Continuing, “We had 18,000 for playoff games and the Omni was rocking…people loved the Flames”!
However…as the inaugural season in 1999 neared, the alumni group suddenly found themselves on the outside looking in.
Ecclestone continued, “They basically brought us in, then kicked us out…I hate to say ‘they used us’, but it was almost like that”.
The purpose was served, so to speak?
“Yeah, you could say it was kinda like that”.
So, what change? Who possibly might have made the decision to place the history of the sport at arms length from the current NHL team?
Ecclestone answered by citing Waddell’s statements during the All Star Game held here two seasons ago. “He said that the gap was far too big between the teams. So we knew we didn’t have his support…Don Waddell has a lot of say-so down there”.
“However”, he added, “It’s really an issue with ownership.”
And a team’s decision to take advantage of the willingness of former players to help…even if they played for a franchise that had been relocated…can be very prudent. Case in point, the Minnesota Wild.
As Tim explains, “The Wild owners embraced the players of the past…North Stars or anyone who played in the league. They brought them in, sat them down and said ‘we want you to be a marketing arm for us. We want you to go out there and be supportive…sign autographs…we want you to be a part of us’”.
“That’s what they did in Minnesota”, he said, “Their alumni is very active in the community”.
Tim says he’s been frustrated with the current ownership’s unwillingness to work with the alumni group though he’s tried to contact them regarding such. Michael Gearon, he says, has been polite enough to return his contacts, but not so Bruce Levenson.
Regardless, Ecclestone and the alumni group continued to support hockey in the community by holding celebrity golf tournaments to raise funds for youth hockey. “We gave money to kids who could make the travel team but didn’t have enough money to go on the travel team…that made us feel good”.
How much money could be raised?
“$15,000 a year…sometimes more. And we gave that to the Cooler…The MIC…minor league hockey…scholarship money…we did this on our own”.
When I asked if he’s still personally active in pursuing any partnership with the Thrashers…to be that link to the city’s hockey roots…he simply said no, and here’s why.
“There was this story in the paper about Darren Eliot taking over promoting youth hockey in the area”. Which was fine and good with Tim and the rest of the guys as they would have been happy to assist him in such endeavors.
“But there was this night down there at Philips Arena when the Calgary Flames were in town playing. There were hundreds of red Flames jerseys, mostly Atlanta Flames jerseys, in the stands…which makes us feel good, we always like to be remembered”. He goes on, “J.P. Dellacamera comments about it and says…’Ya know, I don’t see too many of the old guys around’”.
“Eliot then says, ‘All I know is the Atlanta Spirit and the Atlanta Thrashers down here have done everything they can do to get these guys involved…but they just don’t seem to want to get involved”.
And what was your reaction to that statement, Tim?
“He made that statement”, he replied, “…you’ve got a situation where we’ve busted our butts to raise money in this city for youth hockey…an alumnus in Darren that publicly states we don’t seem to care… and you’ve got a GM that has no interest in us…and an ownership that won’t return our calls. It was disappointing”.
He then stated, “The organization has been very generous to us in regards to providing tickets for alumni, and we are appreciative of that…but I firmly believe that we could be a great service to them in their marketing efforts and promoting the NHL product in the community”.
Ecclestone strongly feels that he and the other members of the alumni group can indeed be a bridge to Atlanta’s hockey past.
“The history of hockey in Atlanta…you can’t just sweep it under the carpet. It’s still there”.
In part two of my discussion with Tim, he shares with us his thoughts on the Thrashers lack of a team “identity” and how it possibly could have been constructed…his attempt to sponsor an Atlanta Hockey History area at Philips Arena…and about two men that were also considered for the GM job eleven years ago, Cliff Fletcher and Brian Burke.