The franchise is in season nine but remains maybe a two on the evolutionary scale. The owners are in year five, but their juvenile battles have lasted nearly as long. Hockey isn’t failing in Atlanta so much as the product is, and it turns out even the sports’ most die-hard fans have a breaking point.
“You can only put up with losing for so long,” Joe Harris said. “And I grew up a Cubs fan.”
The NHL trade deadline is Wednesday. Once again the Thrashers have morphed into a going-out-of-business sale. Take a defenseman, a fourth-line center, some shelving. Just send back prospects. They can sell those as “hope.”
Good teams add players for playoff runs, but this outfit has been amateur from day one. Local hockey fans should be used to this by now. This will be the Thrashers’ eighth non-playoff season of a possible nine. But it seems the fans have more of a heartbeat than anybody running things.
Plans have circulated for weeks on Internet message boards to turn Friday’s home game against Montreal into a protest night. Several fans have vowed to wear paper bags, maybe with “Atlanta Spirit Stinks” on it. (Something about the acronym, apparently.) Others are considering bringing signs. Maybe they’ll even burn Damian Rhodes in effigy. Again.
“I don’t know why they own the team,” Harris, a former season-ticket holder, said of the Atlanta Spirit. “You get no feeling that they care about the fans or putting a winning product on the ice. It seems like they just kind of put the team on cruise control this year while they tried to figure out how to stop losing money. I’m glad I stopped my tickets this year because otherwise I would just be depressed for three hours, watching my money go down the toilet.”
General manager Don Waddell justifiably has taken the most heat. But the Spirit is a rising target. Owners entered this season seemingly more concerned about paying their legal bills than improving a team that has one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL.
Worst of all: They seem indifferent to the losing. It’s the worst message ownership can send fans.
I’d love to share their thoughts with you. But team officials declined to comment for this column. However, they’ve promised not to harass fans who plan to wear bags or carry signs. Seems even they realize they can’t afford to alienate the few patrons they still have.
Harris has led this planned protest. He estimates spending $25,000 over eight years for season tickets before deciding not to renew. That decision came during a town hall meeting with management last year, when owner Bruce Levenson lost his cool with angry fans. (Levenson has admitted he could’ve handled things better.)
“I decided I’m not giving this guy any more of my money,” Harris said.
Jonathan Peterson also canceled. Even his son, Christian, now 11, who idolizes Ilya Kovalchuk, seconded the decision. “It’s pretty bad when even your son is telling you it’s not worth it,” he said.
He was turned off by the team’s coaching search (“It was done on the cheap”), payroll decisions and “millionaires suing each other. I’m not going to fund that.”
He still goes to some games, but added: “The crowds are so bad now. Sometimes the beer stand near us is closed if there’s not enough people there. It’s like minor-league sports. You might as well have live chickens on the ice between periods.”
The Thrashers have won a few games recently. That changes nothing in the big picture. The franchise is a punch line. There is no reason to believe things will improve. Old fans want to wear bags. New fans are pure fantasy. And this week the suits will be back in court.