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