On October 5, 2007, opening night of the Thrashers 2007-8 season, Atlanta Spirit co-owner Rutherford Seydel stood by as the 2006-07 Southeast Division Championship banner was raised to the rafters of Philips Arena. He took control of the microphone as it was hoisted up and made a promise, a vow, to the 18,707 fans that had packed into the arena…and everyone else in the greater Thrasherville community. He assured us that night that he and the other co-owners would do everything in their power to bring a Stanley Cup championship to Atlanta.
I remember this event very well. My wife and I were sitting in section 319 along with our two sons. Just six months prior we were in 316 for the first playoff game in team history, feeling the upper deck shake when Eric Belanger scored the first ever post season goal for the Thrashers.
Unfortunately, Seydel’s promise was not only to go unfulfilled but as we now painfully realize, icing a competitive NHL team was in fact never the intent of the Atlanta Spirit, LLC, (Lies, Lawsuits and Contempt). His pledge that night was nothing more than hollow words uttered by one-eighth of an ownership group that never planned to put forth any effort whatsoever to back them up.
Just a few days after that opening night, I posted my first “Ice Man” blog on this site. By then we had had already seen the team drop the first two games and were on their way to six straight defeats to start the season. But before game number seven was played they fired head coach Bob Hartley…the only coach ever to take them to the playoffs and the only one ever to lead them to beyond 83 points in a single season.
I wrote a blog that day saying “good-bye and thank you” to coach Hartley…a man I had gotten to know and respect while my oldest son attended a couple of his hockey camps. In that opine, I indicated that the only true measure to gauge whether or not the move was the correct one or not would me determined by how the team fared afterwards and by who he was replaced with.
Of course, the person that finished the season behind the bench was general manager Don Waddell, whom so many felt should have been the man departing Thrasherville instead of Hartley. The team finished that campaign with a record of 34-40-8 for 76 points. They followed that up with another 76 effort during John Anderson’s first year as head coach then 83 in his second and least season. Last year they posted 80 points with coach Craig Ramsay at the helm.
I’ll leave it to you to determine whether or not the move to replace Hartley was a success or not. I think you all know where I stand on that issue.
AS, LLC: The Roots That Caused The Tree To Rot
While I understood that there were serious issues facing this Thrashers organization the day Waddell announced Hartley’s departure, what I didn’t quite yet have a firm grip on back then…something every Thrashers fan should have now…was just how deep the roots of the true problem with this organization ran. It was easy to point a finger at the only GM the franchise had ever had…really easy… but the fact of the matter was that the tips of the root system that was rotting the Thrashers tree forked in eight other directions…one to each of the partners that made up the Atlanta Spirit, LLC.
From the day they took over the Thrashers, Hawks and Philips Arena, the AS, LCC members admitted they were not hockey people. But over the course of time we began to understand that they not only had no clue what they were doing as owners of an NHL franchise, they actually had a certain disdain for the them as well as their the fans. As such, they were treated as unwanted stepchildren.
The Spirit Boys took over at a time in the Thrashers history when the team was moving up in the hockey world. In the years leading up to that banner-raising night in the fall of ‘07, they had gone from 74 to 78 to 90 then to 97 points and a playoff spot. This team had no issues putting butts in seats on a regular basis back then…even to the point where there was talk on this blog about a “sellout jinx” as they had a habit of playing below par in front of a full Philips Arena.
It was a “jinx” the Spirit Clowns made certain we would not have to worry too much about in seasons to come.
A packed Philips Arena was not much of a worry here the past four years because Levenson, Seydel and the rest of the Great Octocluster choked off funds needed to keep top-tier talent, the main cause of the organization’s Player Retention Deficit Disorder. First it was Marion Hossa departing Atlanta at the trade deadline of 2008 along with Pascal Dupuis…who also scored for the Thrashers in their first playoff game…for such superstars as Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong, Angelo Esposito and a draft pick. The revolving talent door continued to spin leading up to the departure of Ilya Kovalchuk two winters ago.
Hossa, Kovalchuk and others departed Thrasherville for pretty much the same reason…the owners lacked a commitment to do what was necessary to build a successful franchise here and so they decided to take their talents elsewhere.
All the while, the Octocluster remained distracted with their years-long legal battles amongst themselves.
As if this wasn’t enough to turn Atlanta area hockey fans sour to their product, co-owner Bruce Levenson…the person the rest of the Spiriteers deemed the most qualified to represent the hockey portion of their little investment…employed such PR skills as calling a season ticket holder a “smart ass” during a town hall meeting. Later in that gathering when he was asked by another paying customer about rising ticket prices at the same time the on-ice talent level was being lowered, Levenson said we would have to just “deal with it”.
Insulting the people who they expect to shell out major coin to enjoy their product…yup, Brucie boy, that’s an excellent way to endear yourself and your team to the local sports community.
The Atlanta Spirit ‘Disposes’ Of Its Unwanted Stepchild
But today, the most dysfunctional and pathetic ownership cluster flop ever to stain the fabric of professional sports delivered their final insult…final slap to the face…to those who supported and followed the Thrashers. After running the team straight into the ground…after running the team at bargain basement levels at or just over the league minimum…after lying to the fan base for six years about their desire to “dispose” of the team…after displaying a contemptuous demeanor towards you and I…the seven remaining co-owners collected their millions and spirited the Thrashers off to Winnipeg, Manitoba.
They will say that they had no choice…that there was not enough fan support to attract buyers intending to keep the team here. They’ll once again point the same finger of blame that was wagged in our faces last winter when Michael Gearon, Jr announced their desperate attempts to unload the team. They’ll say and do all of this, that is, if and when they acquire the intestinal fortitude to publicly answer such questions.
But to the notion that the fans here are to blame for what the Atlanta Spirit did to hockey in Atlanta I have but two words:
The responsibility rest squarely on the shoulders of the giant steaming pile of EPIC FAIL known as the AS, LLC…and I will toss in their willing accomplice Don Waddell, who for seven years merely serviced this team at bare bone levels and met payroll.
Unfortunately, none of this does anything to heal the pain that is felt by Atlanta hockey fans…and sports fans in general. You know what happened here, although so many across the continent may not. Anger, frustration…these words do not do justice for what we feel towards the individuals who inflicted this upon us.
One day I’d like someone to ask them all if they felt any shame for the damage they inflicted here…damage that could not have been any worse if they deliberately intended to do so. But feeling shame is a quality reserved for souls that actually give a damn about anyone outside of their own personal spheres. So looking for such with this group would be a bit much to ask.
And Finally…A Vow To You, Atlanta Spirit Boys
And so on behalf of the good people of Thrasherville, I would like to address the following to those directly responsible for this disaster…Mr. Seydel, Mr. Levenson, Michael Gearon Sr., Michael Gearon Jr., Ed Peskowitz, Todd Foreman, Beau Turner and even Steve Belkin.
In the spirit of that now-infamous “vow” from Rutherford Seydel to fans on October 5, 2007, I now make a solemn pledge to each and every one of you.
We will not forget you and we will not forget your names. But most importantly we will not forget what you collectively did to destroy NHL hockey in Atlanta, nor shall we forgive you for your actions.
It is a promise…a pledge…that I am quite certain will be kept far better than the one you made to us that night when the one-and-only Thrashers championship banner made it’s way up from the ice of Philips Arena.