I know how Atlanta feels. Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, 1997 was a tough year. The Hartford Whalers, having just been bought by Compuware’s Peter Karmanos, all but stole the Whalers and moved them to North Carolina – despite the fact that he didn’t even have an arena deal down in North Carolina. Earlier this afternoon, Atlanta became the new Hartford, as it was reported that True North Sports and Entertainment, owner of MTS Centre in Winnipeg, purchased the Thrashers from the Atlanta Spirit Group, which has faced financial problems and owner in-fighting for years. True North’s plan is to move the Thrashers back to Winnipeg, Manitoba, which itself lost the Winnipeg Jets after the 1996 season. The NHL’s owners are meeting next month to finalize the sale.
But I have never lost two teams like hockey fans in Atlanta have over the last 30+ years. First, the Atlanta Flames, struggling their entire existence in Atlanta, folded and moved to Calgary after the 1979-80 season. To make matters worse, the Calgary Flames ended up winning the Stanley Cup just a couple of years later in 1989. The city did not seem to mind as the public outcry in 1980 was fairly subdued. But that didn’t stop expansion from rearing its ugly head again.
As part of Gary Bettman’s foolish foray into the Southern United States over the last 15 years, the Atlanta Thrashers were brought into the league for the 1999-2000 season to little fanfare. The team made the playoffs only once, losing in the first round to the Rangers in the 2006-07 season. The only publicity it received nationally was negative – Dany Heatley being forced out of Atlanta as a result of the tragic car accident resulting in the death of his teammate 6 years ago and the Ilya Kovalchuck fiasco over the last couple of years that resulted in Kovalchuk being signed away to play with the New Jersey Devils. The Thrashers were relegated to a solid fifth place in the Atlanta sports scene behind the Falcons, Braves, Hawks and College Football.
The Thrashers did have some good good players – Kovalchuk and Heatley, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Marian Hossa – even former Hartford Whaler Ray Ferraro had a couple of good years at the beginning of the team’s existence. But they were all eventually traded away or left to sign with other teams. The ownership group treated the Thrashers as the Black Sheep (and if the Atlanta Hawks are the pride and joy, that tells you how unimportant the team was) of the family and never devoted the resources that might have had the team succeed. And here we are, only 11 years later, watching yet another NHL team move. It didn’t have to be that way if the Thrashers had stronger ownership.