Friday, 20 May 2011

Atlanta Has Heard This Before

This weekend is pretty much the wake for the Atlanta Thrashers franchise if you believe the hype that the Thrashers will start the season in Winnipeg next season. From all the rumblings I've heard, it sounds like it's just a matter of signing and delivering at this point, but I have to say that I feel for the fans in Atlanta. I really do. I went through the pain and frustration and anger that Georgians are feeling right now in 1996 when the Jets were uprooted and moved to Phoenix. I'm not writing this article out of sympathy, though, because this happened once in the past with a franchise that now exists in Calgary. While the pain and frustration and anger is at a high right now for Georgians, history, it seems, is definitely repeating itself.

I want to point to an article written by Kathy Blumenstock and published in the March 10, 1980 edition of Sports Illustrated. It was a fabulous article about the arrival of Olympic hockey hero Jim Craig in Atlanta where he posted his first win in his first game while wearing the fiery "A" on his chest. The key to this article, however, is that the epigraph reads as follows:

"Georgians suddenly turned on to the alien sport of hockey last week, giving a lavish welcome to Olympic Goalie Jim Craig, whose pro debut with the Atlanta Flames was a rousing success, on and off the ice"
This article, written in 1980, speaks about how Georgians suddenly took to the "alien sport of hockey" thanks to the arrival of one star player that had some notoriety to him.

Now, there's no doubt that the Thrashers have had a number of star players like Kovalchuk, Heatley, Hossa, and Lehtonen, but none have been of the home-grown variety like Jim Craig was. However, the fans came out for the one and only time that the Atlanta Thrashers made the playoffs, and that same season saw Marian Hossa score a franchise-best 100 points and Lehtonen post the most wins in franchise history in one season with 34. The basis of a solid, young team was there with Kovalchuk, Hossa, and Lehtonen leading the way. Hossa would finish the season sixth in scoring, while he and Kovalchuk finished with 43 and 42 goals respectively. Atlanta won their first and only Southeast Division title, and there was a reason to be excited for the first time in Thrashers history about the progress this team was making with these youthful stars in the lineup.
"Craig may be the savior of the Atlanta franchise. Plagued by poor attendance, Atlanta is resigned to losing at least $2 million this season. Rumors of the Flames' departure from Georgia are rampant; according to the latest ones, the team will play next season in Calgary or Dallas or East Rutherford, N.J. But with Craig in the lineup, there could be a turnabout. His box-office appeal immediately became apparent."
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? The Thrashers, plagued by poor attendance, lost boatloads of money, including an estimated $25 million this past season. Rumors of them moving to either Winnipeg or Quebec City were floating since the season ended, but there doesn't seem to be any sort of marketable star to try and salvage something of this Thrashers franchise in the Atlanta area.

I hate to bring this up, but the stories of Atlanta Flames leaving and the Atlanta Thrashers leaving sound eerily similar: marketable young stars, fans really taking to the game, the franchise awash in red ink, and the inevitable departure from Atlanta. There's an old adage that I try to keep fresh in my mind when I'm reading stories like this: "those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it". It seems like this adage should have been painted on the walls of the Philips Arena.

Indeed, there are even some former players who feel that the history of the Atlanta Flames should have been promoted by the Thrashers. Phil Foley of the Atlanta Examiner spoke to former Atlanta Flames goaltender Joel Bouchard about the Thrashers' dismissal of Atlanta's hockey history, and it sounds as though Mr. Bouchard is a little angry about the history of the Flames being erased from Atlanta's hockey history.
"When we came here the first meeting I had with the Thrashers... they asked the players to be involved," he said of a meeting shortly after an expansion franchise was awarded. "The new general manager said, 'in no way shape or form will the Atlanta Flames players be involved.'

"When we had our NHL alumni tournament, the general manager would do anything to have his player and coaches be somewhere else."
Let's be honest here, though: a very large part of the problem with the Atlanta Thrashers franchise was ownership and management. As trades decimated the youthful Atlanta lineup in 2007, players like Heatley, Hossa, Kovalchuk, and Lehtonen have all gone on to success elsewhere, including making the playoffs more often than they had in Atlanta. While money issues were always a concern with Atlanta, especially when the team posting double-digit losses in the millions, the one thing that could have turned the franchise around was winning. Bouchard's made the same comments on the radio this week in Canada.

"All the city needed was a winner," he told TSN Radio. "They proved that when they made the playoffs the one year. The coach that made the playoffs (Bob Hartley) they couldn't wait to get rid of the next year. It was poorly, poorly managed.

"You can't fool the people all the time. If you can't field a winner, you should move over and it was never done."

The two histories of the franchises seem fairly similar. Sure, there are some differences in the way that both franchises met their ultimate demise in Atlanta, but the end result is the same. And so it appears that Winnipeg will become the new Calgary as another of Atlanta's NHL franchises is set to move north. And I'll let Phil Foley finish this article off because he makes a very damning point about the Thrashers in his article:
And as another one of Atlanta’s hockey teams looks increasingly likely to be headed to Canada, it seems like that the Thrashers organization failed to recognize the simplest of life’s lessons: those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Due to that, the Thrashers are poised to fly north for the winter for good.
Quoth the Thrashers, never more.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Sage Confucius said...

More people attended Derek Boogaard's funeral than attended a save the Thrashers rally in Atlanta. That should say something. I think Quebec City would be a better option than Winnipeg though.

Teebz said...

Except they have no arena and the ownership group is still in question in Quebec City.

Sage Confucius said...

True. I wish they would get their stuff together and get a team there. It seems like they would really support one. What's the story behind the Nordiques leaving anyway?

Teebz said...

When they were looking for someone local to buy the team, no one stepped up locally thanks to the weak Canadian dollar at the time (61 cents US = $1 CDN). Like the Jets, the Nordiques were sold to the only group that wanted to buy, and they were from Denver. And so the Nords went off to become the Avalanche.

Sage Confucius said...

Perhaps the Quebec City folks can get a package put together. Dallas is looking for a new owner and Phoenix is a total disaster. Florida doesn't look all that healthy either.
I don't like all these southern teams. We aren't a hockey country. There are pockets of folks who love hockey as I do but they are not widespread.
I am lucky to live in an area that is extremely diverse. We support the Hurricanes and love to cheer for the out of town teams too. I always see a few jerseys from other teams at games, sometimes I am wearing one.
The game needs to grow but it needs to be marketed properly. You can't simply say, 'There's no team here so let's put one here." That's what Bettman did and we are seeing the results.