I look at the Atlanta Thrashers and I think, “Japan.”
Hang with me for a minute. Back in school days, I had an issue of Playboy magazine. (It was a mistake. I think it was stuck between the Time and the National Geographic at the newsstand and accidentally ended up in my possession.)
Anyway, this issue of Playboy had an interview with Akio Morita, the co-founder of Sony, who said when he first came to the United States he was astounded that the term, “Made in Japan” had such a negative connotation. So he vowed to change that. Then in 1979, Sony came out with the “Walkman” and of course we all bowed in unison. Before long, we were lampooning anything that read, “Made by GE.”
Now, when I say, “Thrashers,” what comes to mind? Is it that wonder of a team that has won eight of its last nine games, or the past horrors of a franchise that never has won a playoff game? Is it Dustin Byfuglien or Alexei Zhitnik? Andrew Ladd or Johan Garpenlov? Ondrej Pavelec or Damian Rhodes? Rick Dudley or Don Waddell?
Deep wounds don’t scab over quickly. The empty seats in Philips Arena are evidence of that. But for what it’s worth, something pretty amazing is going on with this franchise.
The Thrashers aren’t as revolutionary as the Walkman. But they do make you slap your forehead a little.
A team that lacks a pure goal scorer entered Wednesday ranked first in power play efficiency and sixth in goals scored. They skate. They attack. They take few penalties. They forecheck and backcheck, and do it all for relatively paltry checks, the byproduct of the league’s most anemic payroll (thank you, Atlanta Spirit).
“I think even we’re a little surprised,” Eric Boulton said.
“I’ve talked to a couple of my buddies on other teams after games and they’ll say, ‘You guys were all over us tonight — we didn’t have time to move,’” said Jim Slater, one of only two holdovers (with Boulton) from the franchise’s lone playoff team in 2006-07. “When you hear that from the other team, it means something.”
This recent stretch of nine games, during which the Thrashers have outscored opponents 30-11, might be the best in franchise history. Even Craig Ramsay, the first-year coach, admits he’s surprised how quickly every player has bought in.
Maybe the Thrashers should put him in charge of marketing. They rank 28th in attendance at an announced 11,789 per game, which has fueled rumors of the franchise moving (likely unfounded).
“It’s just like coaching a team,” Ramsay said. “You can’t just make all of those changes in the short term. Our job is to put the best product out there and eventually people will like what they see. There were 6,000 people in Tampa when I went there. Then we won a Stanley Cup when there were probably 25,000 squeezed into that building and another 20,000 outside on the deck. It takes time.”
The problem is trying to recover from so much damage. The newness of an NHL franchise drew fans in the first couple of seasons. The playoff season led to several sellouts and an average of over 16,000 per game. But so many losses, missteps in the draft and free agency and ownership’s seeming ambivalence to do anything about it turned off the old fans and prevented turning on new ones.
Soon, they were off the radar.
Byfuglien, the team’s emerging star, saw this in Chicago. The Blackhawks had so infuriated their fan base that they were being outdrawn by the city’s minor-league team.
“It’s kind of like here,” he said. “It wasn’t the easiest thing to get up and go play in your own barn. It’s like you’re on the road all the time. Sometimes you come in and there’s a lot of the other team’s fans, like in Chicago you’d get more Detroit [fans]. But the change was unreal. We went from 11,000 fans to 21,000 fans. Packed houses all the time.
“It’s definitely hard to come back here [off the road] sometimes. In warm-ups you’re there and you see only a handful of people. But we can’t let that affect how we’re going to play.”
Boulton said he believes fans will return, adding, “The building gets rockin’ when the town’s excited about our club.”
Keep winning and it will happen again. But some damage can’t be overcome quickly.
– By Jeff Schultz