At 12:15 p.m. EDT Tuesday, True North Sports & Entertainment announced that it had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers from Atlanta Spirit LLC, and will relocate the team to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The news is overwhelmingly exciting for the entirety of Manitoba and much of Canada, but crushing to the hockey community in Georgia that has grown exponentially in the last 11 years and is on the rise still.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, there is probably no better promotional tool for a youth hockey organization than an NHL team. The best players in the world playing right in your hometown? That’s exciting, maybe even inspirational.
So now, without the best players in the world gracing the Atlanta ice, it will be mainly on the youth hockey administrators, coaches, parents and volunteers to keep amateur hockey vibrant in Georgia.
Coming up after the jump, a further look at the potential impact of the Thrashers’ relocation, new hurdles for growth and how Georgia’s hockey community can avoid disaster.
First, let’s take a look at the potential impact the Thrashers’ move to Winnipeg can have on amateur hockey in Georgia, with some numbers:
I predict that retention will take a small hit, but new membership could be vastly affected by the lack of an NHL club. Retention is incredibly important, but not nearly as vital as bringing in new members on a yearly basis.
Unfortunately, there’s not really any comparable precedent to make accurate predictions on just how hard Georgia will be hit, if at all. The absolutely closest thing (and it’s not exactly close) I could come up with to illustrate how the NHL’s presence affects hockey membership was Connecticut.
The Hartford Whalers left Connecticut for North Carolina in 1997. However, as a cold-weather state, in hockey-friendly New England, what does Connecticut tell us about Georgia? Well, maybe just a little bit.
Based on my numbers going back to 1990-91 (courtesy of USA Hockey), with the Whalers in Hartford, hockey grew consistently in Connecticut. In 1990-91, Connecticut had 5,363 registered hockey players. In 1995-96, there were 9,773, an 82% increase in five years. Hockey continued to grow essentially right up until the point the Whalers left town.
Without an NHL team, the growth essentially plateaued. From 1998-2010, membership in Connecticut fluctuated between 11,500 and a little over 12,000. In 1998-99, there were 11,508 amateur players registered with USA Hockey. In 2009-10, there were 12,088. A growth of 5%. That’s essentially stagnant, however very similar to the slower growth seen in other states without an NHL team.
Granted, Georgia has a lot more room to grow than Connecticut does anymore, but seeing stagnant growth for a state that has a rich hockey-playing tradition makes me a little nervous about a state that is essentially in the adolescence of it’s own hockey history.
Connecticut’s base of 12,000 players is pretty solid, considering the population. It has a strong hockey community, with plenty of rinks and youth hockey organizations. Georgia, a state with 2,000-plus registered players, cannot afford a similar stagnation. However stagnant growth would not be nearly as disastrous as a decrease in the hockey-playing population, which is still a distinct possibility.
Some of the hurdles the hockey community will have to contend with in Georgia:
Without the NHL team, the promotional battle youth hockey administrators will face is a tough one.
Gone with the Thrashers is its staff that helped play a role in marketing youth hockey in the community. Gone are the players that attended hockey camps, or got out in the community to meet the local youth. Gone are any TV ads, billboards, newspaper articles, TV news vignettes, and much of the mainstream publicity in which hockey would be included.
That makes for a tough job to increase awareness of the game as a whole. Not having an NHL team only makes the job of youth hockey administrators harder, not impossible.
So what can they do to prevent youth hockey Armageddon in Georgia?
First off, USA Hockey and it’s Southeastern district leadership will continue to work to grow the game in that area. USA Hockey often provides materials and at the very least advice on how to keep youth hockey moving int he right direction. So the youth hockey administrators, coaches and parents won’t be totally alone in their quest to keep hockey moving in the right direction.
There is also a great opportunity here for the popular Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL to become Georgia’s team. Being active in the youth hockey community and providing affordable entertainment will allow hockey to maintain at least some exposure in the state. Based on everything I’ve seen, the Glads are very much in touch with Georgia’s hockey history and helping the game have a place in the state. Minor league hockey may not be the NHL, but it is high-level hockey nonetheless and can play a big role in the state’s hockey future.
Additionally, Georgia has a pair of Southern Professional Hockey League teams that can help fill the void left by the Thrashers, if only in some small way. The Columbus Cottonmouths and Augusta River Hawks, could get a bit of a boost collecting a few old Thrashers fans and helping them get a hockey fix. Additionally, professional athletes at any level still have the capability to inspire local youths.
I feel strongly that minor league hockey plays a huge role in helping grow the game throughout the country. The three clubs in Georgia are more important than ever in that regard now.
Also taking a hit from this move will be the ice arenas throughout Georgia. As demand for ice time lessens, will these rinks stay viable? It’s kind of a viscous cycle if they can’t. Less rinks mean less opportunity. Less opportunity means higher prices. Higher prices mean less players. It’s the way this thing works.
The rink owners are going to have to play a huge role in hockey’s future in Georgia. Through aggressive marketing, competitive prices and increased initiation programs for younger players, the rinks can help themselves a little bit. That said, running an ice rink is still a business and it has to make money. Creative marketing and pricing may be the only way to get more people in the door. Hopefully there’s enough patience to ride out the initial storm.
Youth hockey organizations are going to have to find ways to keep costs lower, though that is almost always dependent on the cost of ice. So again, at the mercy of the rinks and supply and demand. Any way the administrators can find to keep the costs low, either through sponsorship, donations, or any fundraiser they can think of, they’ll have to try. A big way to get kids to join is to get rid of, or at least weaken, the barriers that prevent them from signing up, particularly in an area where hockey isn’t as popular.
Lastly, outside of an NHL team, perhaps youth hockey’s greatest marketing tool is word-of-mouth advertising. It will be on the parents, the players and anyone else that loves the game to keep attracting new hockey players, young and old. There are more and more people signing up throughout the country because their buddy down the street plays, or because a guy at work has a men’s league team, or because their classmate plays.
Only this time, as far as Georgia’s concerned, it’s not just nice to have a few buddies join up, it’s basically a necessity.
Hopefully, the people that picked up the sport because they loved the Thrashers, stay with it. I’m sure there’s a fair amount of bitterness for the NHL and maybe even the game as a whole right now. However, the best way to prove people they were wrong to call Georgia a dead hockey market, is to keep the game growing.
With or without the Thrashers, there will be passionate people committed to keeping the game growing in Georgia. The road will be much tougher to navigate, but in my experience, hockey people don’t give up too easily.