If the Thrashers leave, it won’t be because Atlanta failed them

Are the lights about to dim on ice hockey in Atlanta? (AJC file photo)

Are the lights about to dim on ice hockey in Atlanta? (AJC photo by Jessica McGowan)

The endgame has surely begun. It’s sad, yes. Given the way this franchise has been run, it’s also inevitable.

In the three months since Michael Gearon Jr., one of the team’s many owners, said the Thrashers were for sale, no credible buyer has emerged who’s willing to throw away money to keep the team in Atlanta. And now, reports esteemed colleague Chris Vivlamore, the Atlanta Spirit has begun negotiations with True North Sports and Entertainment, which very much wants a hockey club for Winnipeg.

Some continue to hold out hope, thinking an Atlanta knight will appear to save the Thrashers. But here we need ask: Does this franchise merit saving?

Atlanta is on the cusp of becoming the first American city to lose two NHL teams, but this failure is more pronounced. The old Flames actually did well on the ice, making the playoffs six times in eight years. The Thrashers have been a continuing dud: One playoff appearance, no playoff victories. They’ve seen their two best players leave because they wanted to make more money but also because they wanted to win.

As convenient as it is to lay all blame on the ham-handed Spirit, these owners weren’t the ones who hired Don Waddell as franchise architect. Time Warner did that. Where the Spirit failed was in its basic commitment to hockey.

The Spirit was made up of businessmen from three cities, most of whom preferred basketball. In the Spirit’s corporate eye, the Thrashers were always going to be the Hawks’ little brothers. Had the hockey club been well-run, that might have been OK. But the hockey club was adrift, and ownership didn’t much care. Indeed, it kept rewarding Waddell for the rousing achievement of coming in under budget.

We now know that the Spirit sought to dump the Thrashers almost from the start, but the sideshow with Steve Belkin lasted so long the team lost its novelty. This stopped being Our New Hockey Club and became just another serial loser. Worse, it was a loser working hard not to spend money. Why should anyone subsidize such a half-hearted enterprise?

Not many among us did. The Thrashers’ attendance cratered, and even the hope inherent in last year’s makeover – new GM, new coach, many imported Chicago Blackhawks – came too late. The Thrashers wilted after New Year’s, and yet another season ended with the 82nd game.

It’s hard to miss the NHL playoffs, which include more than half the league’s teams, 10 times in 11 tries. The Thrashers have managed it. They haven’t found a goaltender or played much defense. They went five years too long with Waddell. They’ve given the bulk of the audience no reason to keep watching.

As cruel as it sounds, they’ve had their chance. Of the four teams that entered the NHL in the latest round of expansion, the Minnesota Wild has made the playoffs three times, reaching the conference finals in 2003; the Nashville Predators have qualified for postseason play six of the past seven seasons and just won a series. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets — one  playoff appearance, zero victories — keep the Thrashers from being alone at the bottom.

Not since 2007-2008 have the Thrashers averaged more than 15,000 at Philips Arena. Over the past three seasons, they’ve outdrawn only the Islanders, who are the third team in the New York metropolitan area, and the Phoenix Coyotes, who were in line for export to Manitoba before voters stepped in last week.  When you go three seasons and average 13,901 per home date, is there really an audience to desert?

There is, sort of. The same cluster of fans who loved the Thrashers when they arrived in 1999 love them still, but the franchise has had 12 years to attract a bigger audience and failed. For the zealots, separation would come as a blow. For the  rest of us, it would mean little. Because the Thrashers have never sold themselves to us. They haven’t won big enough. They’ve been part of Atlanta, but they’ve never become part of the Atlanta conversation.

They’ve had 11 seasons, three more than the Flames did. They set up shop in a new arena and rode a wave of good will. They capitalized on none of it. If/when they leave, it won’t be because Atlanta failed the Thrashers. It will be because the Thrashers failed Atlanta.

By Mark Bradley

263 comments Add your comment

atlantafanatic

May 16th, 2011
6:07 pm

atlantafanatic

May 16th, 2011
6:07 pm

Unfortunately for me, I am a zealot

Mark Bradley

May 16th, 2011
6:12 pm

Kudos, atlantafanatic. And I feel for you and those like you.

Matt from MN

May 16th, 2011
6:12 pm

My anger knows no bounds at this point.

Sage of Bluesland

May 16th, 2011
6:13 pm

Amen. For once, I agree with Bradley. He FINALLY causes some criticism to be thrown to the incompetent buffoon we’ve had at the head of this organization (Don Waddell), as opposed to faint praise of being a “nice guy”. (Just like Pete Babcock was and look where that got him…and us).

I am thankful I saw right through the fraud and stopped subsidizing this incompetence many years ago (during the first failed “Five-Year Plan” of Donny’s).

Through all the other lies, deceptions, and “Five-Year Plans”, I just hope Don also moves from this beautiful city….He has taken so much and given very little back. It’s time for him to leave, as well.

It’s time for Donny to get back to his true medium: being a port-a-potty salesman. He must laugh at night thinking how much he has made for doing so little?

I know I would. Silly sheep–it’s too bad more of you didn’t cut the funds when it may have made a difference years ago. Too late now.

(Just waiting for one of Sara’s spweadsheets to help us see the light…)

Kwesi

May 16th, 2011
6:14 pm

Mark, I could not have said it better myself. The fans have not let the team down, it was doomed from the beginning with ownership. For once, the fans in Atlanta cannot be blamed for this. Ownership never really seem to care and it is sad, but like you state due to the fact that the Thrashers never sold themselves to us, would losing them really register more than a blip most.

The Falcon Jedi

May 16th, 2011
6:15 pm

ASG is nothing but an investment group. They neither care or know anything about sports, other than what the bottom line brings. Its a shame these jerks still own the Hawks. Imagine what Arthur Blank would have done for the Hawks. They might have an NBA Championship by now.

Monique

May 16th, 2011
6:17 pm

That title makes no sense as it is in fact because there isn’t enough fans that the team is leaving. Atlanta is a small hockey market at best.

UGA75

May 16th, 2011
6:19 pm

The Thrashers are the only Pro team I pay to see. I love the way they competed last year until they ran out of pixie dust and reality set in. If they had an owner like Ted Turner was when he personally owned the Braves, who was committed and sold Atlanta on his commitment, I have no doubt Hockey could make it in Atlanta. The dreadful Spirit ownership should be dropped on their collective and respective heads from the top of the Omni for their betrayal of the Atlanta Sport fans. I’ll quit holding back and say what I really mean. The Atlanta Spirit group SUCKS.

John

May 16th, 2011
6:20 pm

Atlanta is not a hockey city I’d rather Canada get another team where hockey is more loved instead of having a team in Atlanta.

Me

May 16th, 2011
6:22 pm

Thrashers zealot here, too. My only hope is that the sale of the team has a silver lining–I’m clinging to the hope that ASG sells the team to a LOCAL buyer. One who knows how to manage a professional sports franchise. As a sports fan, is that too much to ask?

Look at what Arthur Blank has done for the Falcons in less than a decade. When the Smith’s owned the Falcons, the team was a laughing stock. The G Dome was empty most Sundays during the ’90s. But put an exciting and/or good product onto the field, and the fans respond in a very big way.

You can call this city “transient”, and you can call it “fair weathered”. But I call it home. And I hope the Thrashers do too, for a very long time.

Tim

May 16th, 2011
6:22 pm

I F’ing HATE THE ATLANTA SPIRIT!

I don’t know what i’m gonna do. This is so depressing.

[...] Journal Constitution:  If the Thrashers leave, it won’t be because Atlanta failed them.  This mess begins and ends with ownership.  Fans are the convenient [...]

Thrashers Attendance

May 16th, 2011
6:33 pm

@John You’re probably just trolling from Winnipeg, but I’ll respond anyway. The Thrashers had great attendance from 2004 to 2007. Why? Because we had a decent team. Not a great team, just decent.

During that same 3 season span (’04 to ‘07), the Bruins and Blackhawks (both original 6 NHL franchises) had poor attendance. Was anyone claiming that Boston or Chicago weren’t “hockey cities” during 2004 to 2007?

Source: http://www.keepthethrashers.com/videokeepthrashersreally.html

Warning: the above video is pretty long, but well worth the time.

Blondie

May 16th, 2011
6:35 pm

When the Thrashers started, there were plenty of buns in seats at games. But Atlanta Spirit ruined it from the top down as time went on. They gave new and loyal NHL fans the middle finger every season with their running the team on a shoe-string budget, and yet still upping ticket prices.

The only thing I can say is that if you look for it, there are signs that Atlanta IS a hockey town. We now have college hockey teams in this state, hockey recreational leagues are growing, and even in the suburb of Kennesaw, there is now a hockey supply store. We’re just not an ASG town. So sue us for not taking the abuse with a smile and handing ASG more money to not spend on the Thrashers each season. I can’t stand the NBA or the NFL, I’m bored with the Braves, and GT football is only in the fall. I LOVED going to Thrashers games – and even got into the Stanley Cup (despite us not being in it). Guess I’ll have to go to Gwinnett Gladiators games again.

Hillbilly Deluxe

May 16th, 2011
6:35 pm

It’s all about the $60 million re-location fee.

As the great sage, Alex Hawkins once said, all problems with any sports team can be traced back to the owner. (He played for the Smiths; he should know).

Eileen

May 16th, 2011
6:37 pm

I am a zealot. I follow the Thrashers and NHL hockey. In a city this size, there is something for everyone. Hockey is my passion. Hockey players are the nicest and most down to earth athletes in the world of professional sports. This ownership group has FAILED Atlanta.

Fred

May 16th, 2011
6:40 pm

Atlanta Spirit sucks..enough said.

joekill

May 16th, 2011
6:42 pm

Fred i agree man

DHD

May 16th, 2011
6:46 pm

Don’t care.

John

May 16th, 2011
6:47 pm

@Thrashers Attendance No I actually live in Atlanta and I’ am a die hard hockey fan but Atlanta don’t need a hockey team the Atlanta spirit can sell the thrashers and use that money and spend more on the Hawks to make that team better. As a hockey fan if the thrashers are moved I’d like to see Canada get another team it’s their sport they deserve another team.

Blondie

May 16th, 2011
6:50 pm

@John – I’m sure you’re all “aboot” having a team in Winnipeg. But you should be pressing the NHL for an expansion team, not claiming failure in a large market like Atlanta. It makes the whole league look bad. And you’re wrong, we ARE a hockey town. We just don’t enjoy getting continually bent over and screwed by an ownership that doesn’t care. If TNSE were to run Winnipeg under the salary cap, but still charge more for tickets without winning – you’d be in the same boat, eh?!

Cletus Dooley Earnhardt SR.

May 16th, 2011
6:51 pm

Iss it footballs seison yet?

-GO UGA!

Barton

May 16th, 2011
6:51 pm

It’s a wonder ASG managed to make the money they did to buy the Thrashers and Hawks. They are TERRIBLE owners.

C

May 16th, 2011
6:52 pm

Bad ownership. Bad teams over too long a stretch. Only a fool would want to invest entertainment dollars into that. I used to love going to Thrashers games , but when it became painfully obvious that this franchise was never going to go anywhere in this town and the ownership just never seemed to care. I bailed.

todd grantham

May 16th, 2011
6:53 pm

Mark, I know nothing about hockey other than its played on ice. But it doesnt take a genius to figure out the problem.

it’s hot in the south so you have football, basketball, baseball and NASCAR. There simply arent enough transplanted northerners in Atlanta to support a team that plays a game on a surface most of us only see in drink glasses.

real atl

May 16th, 2011
6:54 pm

atlanta is a city that deserves some kind of commitment when it comes to sports THANK GOD FOR AUTHUR BLANK. Heatley , kolvachuk , hossa, hell we let our champions walk . We shoulda kept those players when we had them. But this is what you get when you get a bunch of rich folks with more money than sports savvyness, added with don waddell equals todays debacle. GET RID OF THE ASG AN GIVE US BELKIN BACK, AFTER ALL BELKIN TRYED SO HARD TO STOP THAT HORRENDOUS JOE JOHNSON TRADE, HE FORSAW WHAT WE SEE TODAY WITH THESE FRANCHISES,,,, AN THAT IS PURE DISSAPOINTMENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

steve from Dalton

May 16th, 2011
6:57 pm

Mark, Does the NHL really want to lose a top ten market, an international city, and a southern outlet for hockey? Why do they want yet another team in Canada?

Ray W

May 16th, 2011
6:57 pm

Just thought I’d throw up a point of fact… if the Thrashers move, Atlanta would be the SECOND city to lose two NHL teams, not the first. Quebec City has lost two teams, the Nordiques who moved to Colorado in 1995, and the Quebec Bulldogs who moved to Hamilton after being in the NHL from 1917 to 1925.

Blondie

May 16th, 2011
6:58 pm

@John, pfft like that’s ever going to happen. They like holding onto their money and will run the Hawks into the ground too. Truth be told, people care less about the NBA than ever. Both teams scoring 100+ points in a game? How is that even considered a pro sport? It belongs on ESPN the Ocho. It’s a joke!

Sage of Bluesland

May 16th, 2011
7:00 pm

I simply hope the incompetent buffoon Don Waddell also has to leave our beautiful city. He has spanned the ownership changes and is the only constant to this organization…well, in addition to his terrible decisions, the countless failed promises, the failed coaches, and nothing but losing.

He has taken so much–and given so little in return. His incompetence helped doom this organization…who had every opportunity and reason to fire him after his first failed “Five-Year Plan”.

Go back to your true medium, Donny, selling port-a-potties…

This Gets Old!

May 16th, 2011
7:00 pm

There’re two answers, the names most prominently mentioned in the comments are Ted Turner and Arthur Blank. There aren’t more people who want to step up and own the team in Atlanta? Where is the movement to stop the move? Where’s the tide of “This shouldn’t happen to us again”?

Where’re the politicians demanding that Gary Bettman come up with answers? Yeah, Atlanta Spirit shouldn’t have been granted either franchise. But, that ship has sailed.

John

May 16th, 2011
7:02 pm

@Blondie Atlanta is a terrible sports city it’s ranked #2 as the worst sports city in the country behind Seattle. I’d rather the thrashers move so that we can get rid of a team that is dragging the city down with being terrible.

Ray W

May 16th, 2011
7:04 pm

Steve, one reason the NHL may be considering another team in Canada is that their approval rating is at an all time low in Canada. Fan hatred of the NHL, born of a distrust for Bettman and a perceived abuse of the Canadian fan/marketplace, is at an all time high. Another team will go a long way to shoring up that support, which currently accounts for 37 per cent of lague revenues despite only having 20 per cent of the teams.

Ray W

May 16th, 2011
7:04 pm

Steve, one reason the NHL may be considering another team in Canada is that their approval rating is at an all time low in Canada. Fan hatred of the NHL, born of a distrust for Bettman and a perceived abuse of the Canadian fan/marketplace, is at an all time high. Another team will go a long way to shoring up that support, which currently accounts for 37 per cent of league revenues despite only having 20 per cent of the teams.

Mr. Magoo

May 16th, 2011
7:07 pm

Feel for you, Atlanta. I live in the Vancouver area and we had unstable ownership in the mid 90’s and thus poor attendance. Ownership and management got their crap together and it’s a good feeling. Unfortunately us middle class patrons can’t afford to buy the tickets. Go Canucks Go!

TheAntiMe

May 16th, 2011
7:08 pm

If there is such a thing as karma then Bruce Levenson should have hemorrhoids the size of hockey pucks every day for the rest of his life.

Hindu Elvis Pimp

May 16th, 2011
7:09 pm

Todd, me thinks you seen too many drink glasses based upon your specious reasoning.

Blondie

May 16th, 2011
7:09 pm

@Todd sorry if not all of us Atlanta natives enjoy sweating our buns off watching cars go around a track and a bunch of sweaty thugs tossing a ball into a hoop every 2 seconds. *yawn*

As it is, I enjoyed a fastpaced kick@$$ sport like hockey just as much as I do college football and baseball. And we get ice in this state so bad that schools close down for a week – what rock do you live under? Not all of us are country bumpkins with a farmers tan. A lot of us relished drinking our beer in A/C, thank you very much.

OHL

May 16th, 2011
7:10 pm

@Thrashers Attendance – from 2004 to 2007 the Thrashers had very good teams yet were still unable to crack the top 20 in attendance and still lost money. Yes, it is true that teams like the Blackhawks and Bruins had downturns with bad owners. But the reason their owners were able to do things like blackout home games (Chicago) or just worry about the bottom line and not the team is because they were still profitable in those markets. When Jeremy Jacobs put out a shoddy product in Boston, he still made money so there was no hint to move the team with poor attendance. Their attendance might be bad but his tv ratings were still great and he made a profit. When Atlanta has bad attendance years, did they have great tv ratings? Even in their good years did they ever have decent tv ratings? Were they ever profitable? That is why you can’t compare Boston or Chicago to Atlanta.

Joe Tess Fish House

May 16th, 2011
7:11 pm

Good ridance 2 the Trhashers. U no it a problem if Mr Blanks is not intrested in bying the team.

PMC

May 16th, 2011
7:12 pm

So, maybe they finally admit that they lied through their teeth to us about the Kovy deal and they never tried to bring in real talent, any success was just dumb luck?

Tyler

May 16th, 2011
7:18 pm

I don’t know what the Canadians are thinking here. Winnipeg is a terrible location for a franchise. We saw that the city couldn’t support the Jets in the mid-90s, so what makes them think that the team will last there any more than twenty years. I guarantee that if the Thrashers are moved to Winnipeg, they will move out within twenty years.

whaler4life

May 16th, 2011
7:20 pm

the thrashers are leaving and about 50 people in Atlanta care

HillMan

May 16th, 2011
7:20 pm

While I am a huge Thrashers fan and day one STH, I am glad my addiction will soon be out of reach. I have given up on MLB after their lockout with millionaires griping over how to split up my money. And now we see how stupid not only the ASG is but the NHL as well. As far as I am concerned, the professional sports atheles and the owners are meant for each other. Greedy boys playing sports for a living and owners buying teams only to later realize the business model for most sports team and towns don’t work. I for one will find a better way to spend my hard earned dollars.

If the ASG keeps the Hawks and Phillips, they will NEVER see a cent from me with all the other choices in the ATL. While we may only be 13,000 diehard hockey fans, we do spend money and I am sure there will be fewer concerts sold out at the Bulb if we fans vote with our dollars.

Happy Predator

May 16th, 2011
7:22 pm

For once those of us who follow the Predators do not have to spend the summer worrying that Mr. Balsillie is going to take our team away but I hate that our peace of mind comes at such a price. I feel bad for the diehards in ATL.

Mat"T"

May 16th, 2011
7:22 pm

Still, this is little consolation. NHL Hockey will be gone in the ATL. Criminal.

wpgJetsfan

May 16th, 2011
7:25 pm

Atlanta Fans, I would also suggest pointing some blame at the NHL right now. They certainly are not fighting to keep the team like they did with the Coyotes. In fact it appears your team is being used as a pawn to sell to TNSE to recoup Coyote losses aka 60 Million relocation fee. Normally that fee is suppose to go to the other NHL owners. Well it will not and it will be used to pay for the Coyotes losses that exceed the 25 M Glendale has agreed to pay.

Winnipeg = Poverty

May 16th, 2011
7:26 pm

That’s why David Thompson is involved. He’s a Billionaire based in Toronto and when it looks like Winnipeg can’t make it and they can’t, he will already be an approved owner (NHL won’t be able to stop him) buy out True North move the team to a Toronto Suburb or a new arena in Hamilton 40 miles away from Toronto. Winnipeg has no chance to survive in the NHL, city is strictly a minor league stopover.

The truth

May 16th, 2011
7:26 pm

I blame DW but mark you need to blame Bruce Pompous.
Bruce had a chance to change things but instead with all of his arrogance kept Don.
Bruce blames Atlanta for not supporting. He was up in Dons box for most of season as he blames fans and AJC. Bruce hates Atlanta and act as if he is a victim as families who have a negative worth are expected to pony up 300 bucks plus for a crap product. Bruce is worth nearly a billion.
He is a shameless, arrogant,dispictable human.
Never equate net worth with human worth.
The AJC needs to be all over this dirty transaction.
MG walks away laughing to the bank too.
Btw, no one cares about those lazy hawks.
ASG leave now a……es and don’t rest in piece you bunch of phonies