Atlanta Thrashers “Throw-back” – How It Was And What Have We Eventually Lost With Thrashers Gone?

Atlanta Thrashers “Throw-back” - How It Was And What Have We Eventually Lost With Thrashers Gone?

Anna Poznyak

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Atlanta Thrashers 1999-2011

By Anna Poznyak

Atlanta has almost forgotten the time when thousands would gather downtown at Philips Arena to watch Thrashers ice hockey games. In May 2011, due to financial losses and ownership struggles, the Thrashers were purchased by the Canadian-based company True North Sports & Entertainment. Only some dedicated fans might know that the Atlanta Thrashers now play in the Canadian city of Winnipeg as the Jets, who are currently fourth out of seven teams in the NHL’s Western Conference.

With the loss of the Thrashers, Atlanta became famous for being the first city in NHL history to have two ice hockey teams relocate to different cities. In 1980 the Atlanta Flames, the city’s previous NHL team, moved to Calgary, Canada and became the Calgary Flames.

The reasons for the unpopularity of hockey in Atlanta may seem obvious. The city has always had strong football, baseball and basketball traditions however, the Thrashers eventually lost the popularity battle with the NFL’s Falcons, MLB’s Braves and NBA’s Hawks. To the woe of hockey fans, sports radio stations discussed college football rather than the city’s latest loss of an NHL team.

The difference in average attendance between the city’s NHL’s and the NFL’s teams does not seem surprising. The Falcons’ attendance confidently stands in the middle of the NFL’s rankings, exceeding the Thrashers’ last season in Atlanta by about five times (68,000 for the Falcons versus only 14,000 for the Thrashers). For sure, the capacity of the Falcons’ Georgia Dome and Philips Arena are drastically different. The Winnipeg Jets do not have a much better situation compared to the Thrashers, with its attendance at 15,000 per game ranking near the bottom of the NHL attendance charts. That said, it’s important to note that Atlanta is a metro area with more than 5 million people.Winnipeg is a city of less than 700,000.

Some say that the Thrashers’ relocation from Atlanta was a proposed project of the Hawks. In 2003, the Thrashers and the Hawks were both sold to Atlanta Spirit, LLC, now known as Atlanta Hawks, LLC. Since then, many have criticized Atlanta Spirit’s handling of the Thrashers. Atlanta Journal Constitution sports blogger Jeff Schultz wrote back in 2011 “it’s no secret that the Spirit has always cared more about basketball.”

“Hockey loyalty dies hard,” said Patricia Kendall, Grady’s graphic design teacher and an ardent hockey fan. “Perhaps it’s better to say that once you’re a hockey fan, you’re always a hockey fan.”

Since admiring Los Angeles Knights’ Wayne Gretzky back in ’80s, Kendall has been a devoted hockey fan. After moving from Los Angeles to Atlanta, she supported the Thrashers from the start of the franchise in 1997.

“I definitely miss the Thrashers and the presence of hockey in the Atlanta area,” Kendall said.

She shared her memories of going with her husband to thrilling Thrasher’s games, saying it was “like going to the circus and a team sport all in one.” Entertaining the audience with spouting flames gimmicks and silly but funny staged games like the Kiss-Cam. Thrashers weren’t saved by making people laugh. Despite the fact that Atlanta no longer has a NHL team, Kendall finds bittersweet pleasure in watching the Winnipeg Jets on TV. “It’s like watching old friends,” she said.

Philip Scardina, a janitor at Grady, shares Kendall’s love for hockey and live games. Even though Scardina has never been a Thrashers fan, he has been enthusiastic hockey fan for more than 50 years.

“[I’m] sorry to see the NHL leave [Atlanta],” he said. “[I] always loved hockey!”

Sophomore Caleb Weinstock misses the Thrashers as well and the fun, unforgettable experience of going to their games. “The Thrashers built my interest [in hockey],” he said. “I wanted to play it because of them.”

With the Thrashers gone, Weinstock isn’t interested in the Winnipeg Jets or the NHL anymore. He has also given up his hobby of playing hockey.

“I wish Atlanta would get a new team,” Weinstock said.

The relocation of the Thrashers has had long-term effects that can already be seen now, almost three years after their departure. Weinstock’s experience is a reaction that many youth coaches and hockey officials dreaded: young people’s declined interest in the sport. The prospect of expanding  youth hockey in Georgia now looks bleak. The Thrashers were known for creating relationships in the youth hockey community and sponsoring programs for youth hockey players. Those actions resulted in an increase in the number of players in beginner programs and the founding of projects like the Thunder Hockey Club that is still successfully competing the nation’s top Tier I AAA travel U14-U18 league.

USAhockey. com reported that in 1998-99 there were only 911 hockey players in Georgia. However, by 2011 2,142 Georgians were playing hockey. Most significantly, , 84 percent were below the age of 18. Now, the Gwinnett Gladiators, Atlanta’s suburban East Coast Hockey League team, are trying to fill the void and take over some of the outreach programs that had been handled by the Thrashers. While there are still many kids playing the game at the rinks around the suburbs, youth interest in playing hockey has dropped. The numbers haven’t changed dramatically: there are still 2,095 hockey players in Georgia. However, the state’s hockey participation has been in slow decline (a decrease of 1.1 percent) and it is unlikely that the  trend will stop. As coaches and youth hockey officials have sadly noticed, only the experience of watching their favorite team live could pique a kids’ interest right away.

While many in Atlanta remain frustrated over the Thrashers’ demise, the Gladiators have benefited from it. Back in 2011, the Gladiators expected a bump in ticket sales from Thrashers fans making their way to the only remaining hockey team in Atlanta area. Indeed, in 2011 some devoted fans immediately purchased season tickets for the same seats they used to have at Phillips Arena. Surprisingly, the Gladiators had higher relative attendance when compared to the teams in their league than the Thrashers ever did. Until this season the Gladiators have always ranked in the top 10 in attendance in their league, and their winning percentage had been higher than the Thrashers.   This season, however, the Gladiators cannot boast the same results. They dropped to 12th place in the league’s attendance ranking and are currently in last place in the Southeast Division. This suggests that former Thrashers’ fans, used to the quality of NHL hockey, have not felt satisfied with what they have seen during the Gladiators’ games. Slowly dropping attendance shows equally dropping interest of Atlantans in not just the Gladiators but also hockey in general.

For a long time Atlanta has not heard the sound of the skates swirling on the ice. It seems that items with the logo of the orange and red bird will soon become rare, sold through eBay to Canadian hockey enthusiasts. Some would say that Atlanta has lost just one more entertainment, insignificant while we still have football, baseball and basketball. But it also leaves hundreds of frustrated, grieved kids, who were making little Thrashers’ museums of their rooms, with lost interest. The Thrashers, as any local sports team, were providing not just fun and entertainment for the crowds of fans, but also inspiration and prospects of opportunities. But who knows, maybe Atlanta will be given just one more chance to host an NHL team. Third times the charm?