It is fair to say that over the course of their young existence, the Atlanta Thrashers have flown under the radar of the hockey world. With only one playoff appearance under their belts coming in 2006-07, the year in which they captured the Southeast Division title as well, the Thrashers have been a struggling franchise from day one in all departments, with few bright spots to speak of.
There's two things that comes to mind when you hear the name Patrik Stefan: Atlanta's first ever first overall draft choice in 1999, and how he didn't do much of anything and fell off the face of the planet since.
Okay I was kidding. There's three things. How could you forget the now-YouTube-famous incident where he bungled an empty net opportunity against Edmonton on January 4th, 2007, and had Ales Hemsky come back down the other way and tie the game up with 2.1 seconds left?
NHL.com voted Stefan the worst first overall draft choice of all-time and, frankly, he deserves it—although, Alexandre Daigle can't be too far behind. Stefan's drafting was quite the sign of the struggles the Thrashers would face on the ice.
Drafting superstars Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, on the other hand, were two of the best decisions the franchise ever made. Ironically enough, both were traded away at one point or another. The Heatley trade made all the sense in the world. Following the awful Dan Snyder tragedy in 2003, it would be very tough for Heatley to thrive in Atlanta again, and it was a troubling situation for Heatley to remain in Atlanta following the accident.
The Kovalchuk trade was a matter of both money and success for Kovalchuk himself. Reportedly, the Thrashers offered a 12-year, $101-million contract that would have made him the highest-paid player in the league which Kovalchuk turned down. General manager at the time, Don Waddell, had no choice but to trade him after that.
Amidst the player and personnel issues, the Thrashers have consistently had some of the worst attendance numbers in the league, and were never able to establish a clear fan base because of their woes. Following the 2008-09 campaign, their 10th anniversary season, the attendance records showed that the Thrashers only filled their building to 78 percent capacity with an average of 14,626 fans attending each game. That number was down last year to 13,607 with a capacity of 73 percent.
Truly awful numbers and their most recent marketing ploy last week was proof of the desperation for people to purchase tickets. And as pathetically employed as it was, it worked. The Thrashers ended up selling the additional 5,000 tickets for the remaining December home games to "free Thrash from jail."
Clearly, the Thrashers were a team in turmoil for years.
However, for a team that has struggled from day one, isn't it justified for people not to buy tickets? Atlanta isn't an ideal hockey market by any means. But it has potential to grow. We won't find out by how much it will grow until the team starts making the playoffs on a regular basis. I truly believe that's all it will take for this franchise to take off flying. This year could be the start of such a trend.
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Under new head coach Craig Ramsay, the Thrashers are playing some of their best hockey in franchise history this season. With off-season acquisitions Dustin Byfuglien (currently leading all NHL defensemen in scoring), Andrew Ladd (newly appointed team captain), Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager—all from the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks—Atlanta now has some character players who have won Stanley Cups and know what it takes to be the best. I can't leave out Anthony Stewart, another surprising off-season addition who has already set career highs in both goals and points thus far.
Combine those players with the likes of power-forwards Fredrik Modin, Nik Antropov, skilled, young defensemen Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian, electrifying, young talents up front like Evander Kane and Alexander Burmistrov, and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who was been nothing short of spectacular this season, and you have a recipe for success.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Thrashers are currently only one point out of first place in a very close Southeast Division behind Washington and tied with Tampa Bay, and, simultaneously, one point out of second place in the entire Eastern Conference.
Now Atlanta has a core of young, talented, exciting players with the right attitude to build around. If the success continues this season, Atlanta could be a very dangerous team not only in this year's playoffs, but also in years to come.
With all the talks of relocation in recent months and years, I don't think it's truly fair to include Atlanta in those talks. They are, indeed, a relatively young franchise with sub-par attendance marks, but it's that same reason why they should not be moved.
The Thrashers are just barely a decade old and are starting to come into their own in the league. If they can at least make the playoffs on a consistent basis—I'm not talking competing for a Stanley Cup, I don't want to get ahead of myself—the fan base will start to grow. The people of Atlanta will begin to realize they have a winning team finally and a faithful fan base will emerge.
I went to a game down there last year against Philadelphia. The fans really get into the action and are behind their team. Look at the Chicago Blackhawks. In the late 90's through the mid-2000's, they had horrible attendance marks. Why? Because the team was horrible. Games were blacked out on television, tickets were not being sold. Fans didn't want to watch.
After the re-structuring of the team by Dale Tallon, the Blackhawks now have young, energetic players like Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, and Brent Seabrook. The team is now successful again, and the city took notice of that. Now, they sell out every game nearly.
Recently, at a game between the Islanders and Thrashers on December 11th, 22 busloads of fans (roughly 1,000 people) drove from Quebec down to Nassau Coliseum to witness the two teams play. It was no coincidence that both teams are dwelling in the basement as far as attendance goes.
The self-titled "Nordiques Nation" traveled to this game in particular to point out to the NHL that both the Islanders and Thrashers have poor markets in their respective cities currently, and also that Quebec deserves a team once again. Putting two and two together, you can derive that Quebec wants one of the teams to move to their city. That's the kind of dedication I love to see out of hockey fans, it truly is.
Let me say that I would love to see a return of the Nordiques, or even the Jets in Winnipeg for that matter, because they have extremely passionate fans and the Nordiques/Habs rivalry was one of the best ever. But there is no way this is happening anytime soon.
Not only does Atlanta deserve to stay where they are at and be given the chance to expand, but also league commissioner Gary Bettman is standing firm on growing hockey markets in the Southern United States.
For each article you read on relocating a franchise, I would bet that there is a quote from Gary Bettman stating that relocation is not an option he is considering at the time. And if he is considering it, teams can say hello to their new home in Kansas City, Missouri, where they recently built the beautiful, $276-million Sprint Center.
Hopefully, we do see a triumphant return for the Nordiques once again, but for the city of Atlanta and Thrashers faithful, it's not time to say "Au revoir" anytime in the near future.