Relocation has probably been the hottest word in the most recent NHL news cycle. As Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, Atlanta Spirit, the ownership group for the Thrashers, is in talks with Winnipeg-based True North to sell the team. True North would then move the team to Winnipeg.
This news has disappointed many people, including me. I was just as upset at the potential of Phoenix moving. However, I never actually believed the Coyotes would be leaving with the time, effort and money put into that franchise by the NHL.
The situation in Atlanta looks dire. It’s not hard to understand why this is happening, but it makes it no easier for a hockey fan that wants to see the game grow in “non-traditional” markets.
There are a lot of things we can see easily. We can see that Atlanta’s average attendance of 13,469, ranked 28th in the league. We saw the empty seats on TV, well… on the highlights at least. We can see that the Atlanta Thrashers have made the playoffs just once in the organization’s 11-year history. We can see an ownership group that, without much care for its hockey team, lost millions upon millions of dollars.
This has caused many a hockey fan and pundit, and perhaps the entirety of Canada’s population guffaw at Southeastern expansion. It’s failed they say. It’s a joke. Atlanta perhaps is the poster child for this.
However, while the buildings may be sparsely filled and ownership struggling, the impact these teams have had go far beyond business. So there are actually quite of few things we can’t see as easily as the things we can.
During Hockey Weekend Across America, USA Hockey sent out some numbers regarding the impact of the NHL on amateur hockey in America.
Nowhere was its impact as greatly felt by the hockey community as it was in the Southeast.
Since the first wave of Southeast expansion in 1991-92, USA Hockey has seen an increase in membership in the Southeast district of 33,089 members. That is up from 6,718 prior to that time period. That is a 492.5% increase. Those numbers do not even include the 2010-11 season, in which USA Hockey registered more players under the age of eight than ever before.
So, in a big way, Southern expansion has had an impact. It is not a “failed experiment” in my mind, as it has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the game as a whole.
The state of Georgia is never going to be known as a hockey hotbed, but there are great strides being taken and the Thrashers have been intimately involved in local youth hockey for years.
In fact, Reagan Carey, who had worked for the Thrashers in a variety of capacities over nine seasons, was hired by USA Hockey to be its director of women’s hockey not too long ago. She must have been doing something right in Atlanta to land a job like that. Carey was part of a staff that helped build relationships in the youth hockey community and create programs sponsored by the Thrashers for youth hockey players.
If, and when, the Thrashers leave, there will be a void left. The likelihood of more kids picking up the sport in Georgia will shrink. Perhaps the ones that already took up the game will stay with it, but new membership, which helps fuel youth hockey organizations, will suffer.
In addition to a growing youth hockey population, the Atlanta area is beginning to churn out some prospects. Powder Springs-native Vinny Saponari skated at the National Team Development Program, won a national title at Boston University, and spent this season tearing up the USHL. At the 2008 Entry Draft, he was selected by his hometown Thrashers in the fourth round (94th overall).
Saponari was a product of the Thunder hockey program, based out of Atlanta. The Thunder, which has been built up over the years, recently announced that it will be joining the Tier I Elite Hockey League, one of the nation’s top AAA leagues. So not only is the area producing new youth hockey players, but plenty of talented ones as well.
Now, none of this changes the fact that as a business, the Atlanta Thrashers just plain didn’t work.
However, one would have to wonder what could have been and what may be for this franchise. With a solid core of young players, a future star between the pipes and a re-tooled front office, this could be a club on the rise.
The Thrashers have an incredibly bright future and it’s a shame we may not see what this team could have done with some sustained success. When you look at the Nashville Predators, you can’t help but wonder if Atlanta had more time and a concerted effort from ownership that it could share similar success.
The Preds have had more playoff success than the Thrashers, but let’s not forget it wasn’t too long ago that Nashville was a candidate for relocation, and even came pretty close to moving. With the bevy of young talent on Atlanta’s roster, success should soon follow.
If hockey were to ever find a way to be viable in a market like Atlanta, the long-term benefit for the league would be immense. We just simply don’t know if that will ever be possible. All we know is that it will be impossible if the team moves.
If there was no local owner willing to keep the team in Atlanta, it has to go. It’s just the way it is with business. Taking on a team like that would be a huge risk. However, it’s important to remember, there is so much more to a hockey market than attendance.
There is a passionate fan base for this team, though small in number. There are kids who picked up a stick because they saw Evander Kane dangle through an entire team, or Dustin Byfuglien rip a slapper top shelf, or Ondrej Pavelec sprawl out to make a save.
Simply put, people will care if the Atlanta Thrashers leave. If this all happens, it’s going to hurt some people, and those are the people I really feel for.
When the NHL goes to Winnipeg, there will be full stadiums and great crowds and it might make for great theater. However, we knew that would happen. Hockey is king in Canada, whether or not there is a team in Winnipeg.
Putting the game in a spot where it shouldn’t work and building more and more interest over time is what can grow the sport so many of us love. For whatever reason, I just don’t feel like Atlanta was given a fair chance to do that. So we’ll always be left wondering… what if?