If Thrashers keep winning, they can overcome damage

Hello, Atlanta. I'm Dustin Byfuglien. Please come watch me and my team.

Hello, Atlanta. I'm Dustin Byfuglien. Please come watch me and my team. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

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.

Players have taken to Craig Ramsay's attack-first philosophy.

Players have taken to Craig Ramsay's attack-first philosophy.

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


Follow me on Twitter @JeffSchultzAJC and Facebook.com/JeffSchultzAJC

108 comments Add your comment

MightyQuinn

December 8th, 2010
6:43 pm

MightyQuinn

December 8th, 2010
6:44 pm

Wow! I WAS first! And, like me, winning will cure everything for the Thrash. Can they maintain anywhere near this level of play for an entire season is the big question.

Herschel Talker

December 8th, 2010
6:46 pm

FIRE MARK RICHT

Atlanta Fanatic

December 8th, 2010
6:52 pm

I am an 3rd Generation Atlanta Native with no roots to the North at all and . . . I love the
Thrashers. I have been a fan since 2004 and I have loved it. But, dont get me wrong I almost wrung my own neck these past few seasons. But this season has been something remarkable. And for all those fans who have lost interest or found other things to occupy their time. This is the year to give the Thrash just one more chance. A new GM and Coach along with a team with REAL and Tangible desire. Give em one more chance.

Atlanta Fan

December 8th, 2010
7:10 pm

I agree with Atlanta Fanatic. I have been in Atlanta all my short life and have watched the thrashers through thick and thin. But I really do believe in this new coach and new GM. They have promise and promise and that is evidenced in their 1st season here! I know fans are very fickle here and it will take SUSTAINED winning and being in the playoff chase in Feb/March and for the NFL season to end for more people to take notice. Hopefully that happens and we continue this solid run! Go thrash! Go Falcons!

UGABugKiller

December 8th, 2010
7:13 pm

Please, God… if you’re up there… bring some butts to the seats of Phillips Arena so we can keep this team.

And while you’re at it, find some rich guy in Atlanta to buy out the majority of the ASG a-holes (the Gearons are okay… sometimes).

Hmmm… I think it’s time for Arthur Blank to meet ASG in a lonely bar and offer to buy a majority stake in the Hawks, Thrashers, and Phillips… like he did with Taylor Smith.

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Barry

December 8th, 2010
7:26 pm

Almost all of us True Blue fans always come out. I started paying attention to hockey the season after the lockout. I really was never introduced to hockey. I just happen to stumble onto it one night on a weekend looking for some sports to watch. I grew up a huge Braves fan but they weren’t playing that night. I was changing channels and found a Thrashers hockey game. I thought to myself, “hmmm…this looks interesting….I never really watched a hockey game before.” I can’t remember exactly but I believe Thrashers lost that game that night by like one goal. The next night is when they played the Flyers in that dramatic back and forth game where they eventually one in OT by Greg DeVries. During that game I was jumping off my couch, yelling and cheering because of the excitement. I was hooked after that game. I went to my first Thrashers game against the Columbus Blue Jackets that year and after that game I had completely fell in love with hockey and the Thrashers. I think the Thrashers won that game like 5-2 if memory serves. After that I went to every game I could. I didn’t have many expenses during that time so I would pay up for the lower level seats around 75 to 100 dollars sitting on the glass. (Of course now those seats cost twice that much). Even though alot of games they would lose I still enjoy it and had fun.

I think it will take a while for the casual fan to come out. You know, those bandwagon fans that come out when they have a successful team to cheer for. Hopefully eventually those bandwagon fans will convert to True Blue fans. I agree…it will take time but as the saying goes “time eventually heals all wounds.”

FJ10

December 8th, 2010
7:40 pm

Buid it – (a winning team) – and they will come.

KICK SAVE

December 8th, 2010
7:52 pm

IF YOU CAN’T GET EXCITED WATCHIN’ THIS TEAM PLAY………THEN YOU AIN’T GOTTA PULSE!!!! THANK’S DUD’S COACH RAMSEY & STAFF!!!!!!

JoeFriday

December 8th, 2010
7:57 pm

If they keep this play up, and I expect they will, we’ll start to see the place fill up now that high school and college football are over.

But, the season ticket holders won’t go up until they win a playoff round (can be done this year) AND they either fire or hide Waddell (have to get him out of the way, he’s the poster child for all that is wrong with the past) and they have to get a new owner/partner in and get Levenson out of the way and make the new guy the face of hockey ownership.

The casual fan will be out in the 2nd half, claiming they’ve been a Thrasher fan all along. I saw it happen in Chicago who recovered nicely when Dollar Bill went to that great bar in the sky. Let’s hope it’s quicker than that turnaround, but Dudley and Ramsay already have the ball rolling in the right direction.

Buf, Ladd, and the rest of the guys are going to be shocked and pumped when they see it sold out when Philly comes to town in January on a Saturday night and only 1/3rd of the fans are wearing puke orange and the rest of us are drowning them out.

JSS

December 8th, 2010
8:03 pm

Nothing to add on it… They must continue to work both ends… No doubt, it is their key! Can’t be negative about their lack of a super scorer to make the difference at playoff time. I said “Can’t!”

Supes

December 8th, 2010
8:10 pm

Jeff,

well said sir. I don’t say this much…but good work :)

deBebbler

December 8th, 2010
8:18 pm

I’ve been a Red Wings fan for 20 years, but Byfuglien caught my eye last year as being a “hell of a hockey player” and I continued to follow him this year to Atlanta, curious how the switch to defense would affect his game.

Imagine my surprise when your club lit up and started winning game after game.

I haven’t missed the radio broadcast for any of the last 12 games and have cheered your club on every time (except when you whooped our butts last month).

Good luck to your Thrashers team this season, and I sincerely hope to see our two clubs meet again for a couple of games in late May/early June.

Bill

December 8th, 2010
8:40 pm

Got my tickets ordered. These guys deserve a big crowd. We try to make it to a couple games a year but I am pumped to go to these!!

LET’S GO THRASHERS!

atlthrasher Fan in Rome GA

December 8th, 2010
8:42 pm

look guys, I travel to Thrashers games from Rome, GA several times in a year. I’ve been going to about 15 games a year and it’s about a 100 minute drive each way. Why? Because I love this team. Been doing it since 2001. I was there for both our playoff home games and it was electric. Hopefully, the arena will be packed again with THRASHERS fans. It makes me sick to see how Atlantans abandon their teams during hardship. Saw that with the Falcons, Hawks, and Braves.

atlthrasher Fan in Rome GA

December 8th, 2010
8:45 pm

Hey Jeff, what’s going on? your articles usually downtalk the thrashers. What’s going on? r u jumping on the bandwagon too? I love this article but where were you over the past couple years when we sucked? You didn’t help our cause either by encouraging fans to come.

Jeff Schultz

December 8th, 2010
8:46 pm

Thanks Supes.

Jeff Schultz

December 8th, 2010
8:47 pm

deBebbler — Have to admit didn’t want Buff that much in Chicago (until playoffs) but he’s fun to watch. Can be a star in this town.

Jeff Schultz

December 8th, 2010
8:49 pm

Atlthrasher Fan in Rome — The whole “bandwagon” thing’s kinda lame. When I see things to criticize, I write them. When I see things to praise, I write them. It’s that simple, there’s no hidden agenda. Thanks.

Chris

December 8th, 2010
8:52 pm

I’m a long-time hockey fan. The Thrashers product on the ice is some of the most exciting hockey I’ve ever seen. I’m impressed with how the type of players Dudley’s acquiring (big/fast/athletic) are the type that fit Ramsay’s system. The Dudley/Ramsay team has a plan, and it’s working.

The many transplant hockey fans in this city won’t abandon their old teams until the Thrashers’ team is better than their old-town club. That’s going to take a deep run in the playoffs, and unfortunately even then, they won’t pry away Pit, Philly, Detroit, Chicago and Boston fans, who all have good clubs now. But Buffalo and Ranger fans are ripe for conversion. Baby steps!

Ryno in Athens

December 8th, 2010
8:56 pm

You know, If I could go to every game I sure would, but I’m still just as big a fan of the team. Nice to see a good product on the ice now! And possibly, possibly I say, a No. 1 goaltender for the first time ever.

JC

December 8th, 2010
8:58 pm

Right on the money, Schultz. It’s a plus to have guys like Ramsay and Buff who have experienced a franchise’s turnaround. Sadly, Rome Thrasher is right – Atlanta fans in general bail on their teams during losing seasons more than most. It’s nauseating.

@deBebbler – thanks for pulling for us; make sure to come to a game if you’re ever in the ATL.

JC

December 8th, 2010
8:59 pm

Also a reminder – next home game is this Friday vs. the Avalanche. The last tilt against Colorado was a barn-burner, so make sure to come out and see this one.

KLS1

December 8th, 2010
9:03 pm

Agree with Jeff…winning will eventually cure all ills.

It ain’t gonna be easy but this team has the potential to save an incredibly incompetent ownership group…for 1/2 price of course.

DawginOH

December 8th, 2010
9:09 pm

I’ve been following the Thrashers since game one and this is the most optimistic I have ever felt about this team. Funny that all they had to do was get rid of Don Waddell in the front office to make it happen. Keep it going, Thrashers!!

DawgDad

December 8th, 2010
9:11 pm

Good article. I’ve been a hockey fan since the late 60’s. Although I never make more than a few games a year in person I’ve followed first the Blues (religiously) and later the Thrashers (somewhat less so, but with great interest). The managment of this team (and the players on the ice) DID turn off fans, and it’s not at all fair to blame the fans for being skeptical this year or for throwing in the towel. It took what, two minutes of the first game before seemingly the roof caved in on this team?

That said, it’s past time to tune back in, fans. This is different. This is HOCKEY, the way it was meant to be played.

This does not completely surprise me. Growing up I was very impressed with the old Buffalo Sabres and especially the play of Craig Ramsay, Danny Gare, etc., real hard-nosed two-way hockey players who backboned a lot of the team success widely attributed to the Martin-Perreault-Robert line and it’s successor incarnations. Dudley and Ramsey know what they are doing.

This team does not have the Kovalchuk star weapon, and that is it’s main blessing. Everyone on this team plays, but no one is catered to outside the team’s system. There are budding offensive stars like Burmistrov and Kane, but rest assured these guys aren’t standing around waiting for a one-timer. There are offensive defensemen like Enstrom and Byfuglien, but the defense is no longer offensive for not playing defense. They carry the puck and join the play deep on offense, but the Thrashers forwards backcheck as relentlessly as you’ll see from any team in this era.

This team isn’t perfect (outside of Pavelec who’s near-perfect in goal) but rarely can you fault the energy or positional play or discipline on the ice. They are inspiring, and that’s something I’ve NEVER been able to say about the Thrashers.

Jeff Schultz

December 8th, 2010
9:15 pm

JC — Thanks for the comments.

JSS

December 8th, 2010
9:16 pm

@ Dawg Dad…
Was there a “French Connection” reference in paragraph 3? Thanks, I needed to smile!

blazerdawg

December 8th, 2010
9:26 pm

Native Georgian; Bulldogs & Braves come first and loved the Flames; went to a few Knights games, have never really taken to the Thrashers, but the win streak has caught my attention and will try to make a few games in late Dec and Jan.

jerry

December 8th, 2010
9:39 pm

Winning can do two things. One, get more hockey fans to the games, and two, get the non hockey fans interested enough to find out what a great game hockey is, therefore becoming hockey fans themselves.

B. Thenet

December 8th, 2010
9:42 pm

Spot on Jeff.

Even if this team just continues to put out the consistent effort we have seen so far this year night in and night out, those fans that walked away from the mess are going to start coming back.

Lee

December 8th, 2010
10:02 pm

These guys are playing hard & deserve the local crowd to come cheer them on. Go Thrashers!

UGA Athletic Department

December 8th, 2010
10:20 pm

Atlanta has a Hockey team??

What did we do wrong??

How do we get rid of it??

Ross

December 8th, 2010
10:41 pm

One thing we need is a color commentator who is colorful. Bill Clement would do. Unfortunately Boom-boom is in the big locker room in the sky. The play-by-play call on TV is about as dull and lifeless as could be imagined in hockey, where effective play call is absolutely essential to enjoying the game.

Bluelander

December 8th, 2010
10:41 pm

Jeff, could not agree more. What we need now is for ownership of this team and Waddell to stop going public with their amazement at why the fans are a little slow in gravitating back. It is almost as if they sit there smug, scratching their heads at why attendance is so low with the team playing some of its best hockey ever. It is an insult to all who have hung in there despite them doing almost everything possible to drive us away for the last 10 years. To the ownership and the desposed Waddell…shame on you….check your egos and take a look in the mirror…take accountability for the your failures of the past and give credit where credit is due…to Dudley for shaping this team, to Ramsey for coaching these guys up and to the players who have bought in big time. Show the same commitment to this team that some of your fans have. That would be a good start!

Gwinnett Fred

December 8th, 2010
10:52 pm

Personally, I think the franchise will remain cursed as long as the “true fans” (if that’s all that come to games) keep up the asinine yelling of “KNIGHTS” during the National Anthem.

Pretty pathetic to not only respect the singing of our nations anthem, but to dishonor it by yelling the name of a defunct minor league team?? Well, that’s, in a very appropriate word – BUSH league!

amanda

December 8th, 2010
10:57 pm

I moved here a Penguins fan last year. I only went to games the Penguins played. I have just completely fallen for this Thrashers team. Friday’s game will be the second one I go to this season that has nothing to do with that other bird team. I have gotten friends excited about this team. I am going insane because shop.nhl.com is taking about 2 months to get me the Thrashers jersey I ordered, which is probably going to get more wear than my Penguins one. I cannot wait to see more and more of what this team can do. I am actually loving them more than the Penguins right now, I’m more interested in this home game winning streak than any 11 game winning streak they have.

I just wish they were marketed better. Even though the whole fan based voting part of the All Star game is useless, it kills me to see that not even 4,500 people have written in Pavelec’s name, when he’s one of the best in the league right now.

amanda

December 8th, 2010
11:01 pm

Gwinnett Fred, if you think just the yelling of KNIGHTS! is bad, don’t ever go to the United Center…

NHL fan

December 8th, 2010
11:01 pm

Thanks jeff

We deserve better in Atlanta. Bruce is trying to sell us out and you can help to save us!! Bruce is trying to convince the NHL that
Atl sucks as a sports town therefore NHL can’t make it.
You know better. We have been deprived of great hockey till now!! Please help save us

Willy

December 8th, 2010
11:06 pm

Hockey is lame.

Telfo

December 8th, 2010
11:06 pm

great write up Jeff. FIrst step is winning back the lost fans, second step(and arguably the most important) is to create enough new fans to where the building has 15-16k in it every night at the minimum.

i really think all it will take is one or two good seasons to create enough casual interest in the team to sustain things for a long time(barring any more decades like the first one)

In a semi-related story...

December 8th, 2010
11:07 pm

If AJC keeping paying Jeff Schultz & Cynthia Tucker to push their left-wing drivel, subscriptions and web hits will continue to decline.

Blueland hasn’t forgotten all you’ve done in the past to try to destroy NHL Hockey in this town, Schultz.

TrueBlue

December 8th, 2010
11:12 pm

As a die hard Thrasher fan, I would like everyone and anyone to “jump on the bandwagon” and enjoy this team. They are making this game nothing but exciting right now. If you are a casual fan or a non-fan, this would be a good opportunity to attend your first ever hockey games. There are tickets deals ALL over the place trying to get people in the door. Unfortunately, far too many people have no faith or have lost faith due to a really tough past 10 years.

Jeff, I agree with your comment about writing for the good or bad. Nearly all of the fans agree with everything you say, and we say basically the exact same things on the Thrashers message boards, but I think people get frustrated because a lot of the people read and enjoy your articles have only been able to see the negative aspects of this team.

I thank you for writing a positive article and I pray that people will finally take notice and at least TRY to attend one of the games. I still have yet to meet one person who has EVER been to a hockey game and did not have a good time. What’s not to like? Nearly every aspect of every sport is played through hockey: Football – HITTING. Hockey is NON-STOP hitting, at full speed, on the ice, for 60 straight minutes…Baseball – A homerun is equivalent to a goal. They are exciting and they will bring you out of your seat. Basketball – non-stop up and down action all over the ice. Name me one sport and I will relate an aspect of hockey to you. Did I also mention fighting? If you are bored, and have never watched a hockey fight…take a few minutes and visit http://www.hockeyfights.com I promise you will get excited watching this.

Again, I welcome ALL fans “bandwagon” or lifelong to come back out to the arena. Right now, this team is nothing but excitement!!

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me

December 8th, 2010
11:59 pm

I just bought tickets for the game this friday

scottbravesfan

December 9th, 2010
12:12 am

The problem with Atlanta is that it’s not a bandwagon city. Bandwagon cities are like Chicago when the Blackhawks started winning, everyone in the city jumped on the bandwagon. In Philly when the Phillies finally started winning everyone finally jumped on the bandwagon. That doesn’t happen here in Atlanta. It’s just the same core fans for the different franchises. The Braves were in the playoffs this year and it was still the regional fans that came out to support the team. The Falcons are the best team in football and there are still some empty seats at the Georgia Dome. Same with the Hawks and Thrashers. The Atlanta pro teams have got to find someway to get the transplants to jump on the bandwagon of the local teams. It kind of pisses me off. I’m not saying you guys should stop rooting for your child hood teams but when the Thrashers aren’t playing the Red Wings, it wouldn’t kill you to come out to a couple of Thrashers games and maybe buy a shirt or a hat with their logo on it too.

Thomas

December 9th, 2010
12:33 am

I have lived in Georgia all my life,born in Waycross , and my family roots go back to when Georgia was first founded in the 1700’s I have been a Thrashers fan since they announced we were getting a hockey team again in 1997 , I love the sport and honestly feel it is one of the most underrated sports in the country, I just wish more people would give it a chance , as for winter sports football and basketball bore me to death so hockey is where it is at for me during the fall and winter and early spring. Hopefully the Thrashers can continue their winning ways and we can get more people in the seats at Phillips.

gcs

December 9th, 2010
12:37 am

Don Waddell = cancer

.

Rich T

December 9th, 2010
7:20 am

I’m thinking of finally going back to Philips for the Thrashers. It’ll give me a way to spend the money I am no longer using to help fund Paul Hewitt’s salary.