When Don Waddell formally introduced John Anderson as the Thrashers’ fourth head coach last Friday, it had been 248 days since the franchise’s Executive Vice President and General Manager had held a similar gathering announcing the firing of Coach Bob Hartley.
At the time, Waddell believed that the Thrashers would be better off in the long run without Hartley. Waddell stated at the time, “I believe we have a chance to salvage this season.”
Waddell then installed himself as head coach and remained in that role until the end of the season, a season in which the Thrashers finished six games under .500, out of the playoffs, and 21 points below their previous season’s output under Hartley.
In fairness, the Thrashers did begin the season with six straight losses before Waddell gave Hartley the infamous pink slip. But as a coach who has a Stanley Cup and five division titles on his resume—including the only division championship the Thrashers franchise has ever won—didn’t Hartley deserve the chance to at least get the team to the All-Star break?
In a city famous for mediocre pro sports teams, Waddell's actions raise some questions about the future of the city’s second NHL franchise.
The Braves, for example, fired Joe Torre after only three seasons and some notable success. In 1982, Torre’s first season, the Braves won their first division title since 1969. The Braves would finish a respectable second place in 1983 and third-place in 1984.
Torre was not retained after the 1984 season and left Atlanta with a .529 winning percentage and 257-229 record. The Braves would not finish higher than fifth in the division until 1991. Their next manager, Eddie Haas, would be fired before the end of the 1985 season.
Torre would eventually gain his revenge while managing the New York Yankees, as his teams defeated the Braves twice in the World Series.
The Atlanta Falcons made a similar mistake—firing Leeman Bennett, who won the Falcons’ first-ever division title in 1980, made the playoffs three times, and finished his six-year career in Atlanta with a .529 winning percentage.
Bennett was fired after a 1982 playoff loss to Minnesota. His replacement, Dan Henning, would eventually be dismissed after four disappointing years, and a winning percentage of .344.
The Falcons would not see the playoffs again until 1991.
Atlanta sports fans have to cringe when thinking about the possibility of déjà-vu occurring yet again with one of their pro sports teams. Will the Thrashers succeed under Anderson, or will history repeat itself? Will the Thrashers have to wait nine years for another playoff berth, as the Braves and Falcons did?
Thankfully, John Anderson’s record as a hockey coach is beyond reproach. Anderson’s teams have won five league titles under his guidance—including four at his most recent stop with the Chicago Wolves, a minor league affiliate of the Thrashers. His teams have made the playoffs in 12 of his 13 years as a head coach, and have made the league finals on eight occasions.
After a coaching search that lasted 248 days, Waddell must think he has the right man for the job. He certainly acted the part when introducing the new coach.
“John has an impressive record of success as a head coach, and we are excited to be adding him to our organization,” said Waddell. “He’s a proven winner whose leadership and experience behind the bench will play a vital role in the resurgence of our hockey club.”
It also should be noted that the two have a history together—Anderson played for Waddell in 1992-93 while both men were with the San Diego Gulls of the IHL. Anderson was a player/assistant coach, while Waddell was the general manager.
This fact, coupled with the fact that Anderson has been coaching a minor-league affiliate of the Thrashers, makes one wonder why the decision took so long for Waddell to make. Waddell also interviewed Thrashers assistant Brad McCrimmon, and is thought to have had also considered former Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella. However, Waddell declared on Friday that “It was pretty obvious (Anderson) would be our first choice.”
If Anderson was the obvious choice, why was the decision not made earlier? Why did the season that could be salvaged turn into a nightmare under Waddell’s guidance? This question must be ringing through the heads of Thrashers fans like a church bell on Sunday morning.
Anderson just might be the right guy to lead the Thrashers and its success-starved fanbase to the promised-land. Or he may be another footnote of mediocrity in the annals of Atlanta sports history alongside Haas and Henning.
All Thrashers fans can do is hope that history does not repeat itself—and that, if it does, team ownership will replace the right guy next time.