Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The cautionary tale

I wasn't going to write about the demise of the Atlanta Thrashers (who are now moving along to Winnipeg), largely because I have never really cared about that team.  Sure, I was at a white-out night where the Blue Jackets beat them (and I got a t-shirt while wondering what the big deal was about that Kovalchuk guy).  But past that, I just didn't care.

But then I read this surprisingly powerful and poignant piece on Bird Watchers Anonymous (thanks for the tip, Matt), and my perspective changed.

The story of the Atlanta Thrashers comes perilously close to the story of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  A ten-ish year old team with only one playoff appearance.  Way too many head coaches over that span.  Dwindling attendance.  To me, the only thing that meaningfully differentiates Atlanta from Columbus at an organizational level is that Columbus has had stable ownership over its history.  Atlanta hasn't been so lucky.

The story of the Atlanta Thrashers isn't a story of fans giving up on a team.  It's the story of owners giving up.  It's the story of inept management.  No, the fans were all but pushed out of the arena.

Sure, hockey isn't the straw that stirs the drink in Dixie - but really, is anything allowed to compare to the Georgia Bulldogs (yet another parallel to Columbus, with its cultural fixation on the Ohio State University)?  But Atlanta is a metropolitan area of 5.2 million people.  Tell me that there weren't 18,545 people to come out to Philips Arena on a given night to watch hockey in a community that large.

No, they kept losing...and the ownership didn't provide the leadership to turn the ship around.  There's an argument to make that Rick Dudley laid a stronger foundation with his retooling of the team in the wake of the Kovalchuk departure for New Jersey (and the Chicago Blackhawks' post-Cup fire sale), but it was too little, too late.

Winnipeg just started its 13,000 season ticket drive (where the cheapest season ticket of CDN $39/game is way higher than the USD $14/game that the CBJ offer), and Commissioner Bettman says that they need full houses in the 15,000-seat MTS Centre to "make it work" up there in the tundra.

So here we are, in Columbus, Ohio.  If memory serves correct, the CBJ had 8,000 full-season equivalents last season, and I can't believe that the number has risen appreciably.  And the 18,000-seat Nationwide Arena was often (barely?) half-filled in 2010-2011.  After ten years.  After a sole playoffs "run".

Even at the bitter end, there still was a core group of fans
who didn't give up hope for NHL hockey in Atlanta.
Like Atlanta, there's a very healthy population of sporting fans in Columbus...but like Atlanta, hockey isn't the number one draw in town and people need to see a winner to get excited.  We can bash on each other and our fellow citizens for not shelling out hard-earned cash to go to Blue Jackets games, but I suggest that the way that Columbus avoids becoming another Atlanta is by putting a product on the ice that people want to watch.  The Blue Jackets need to generate some excitement in the community.  The best way to get there is to early, win often and give the community something to root for beyond a sharp-looking logo.

With Winnipeg's NHL appetite sated, don't think that the NHL relocation rumors are going to stop.  The Sprint Center STILL sits empty in Kansas City.  The people of Quebec are making noises about a new arena to host the squad that would replace the Nordiques (and keep your damned bus trips away from Nationwide Arena, thank you).  The NHL always could bite the forbidden fruit of sports and drop a team in Las Vegas.  Deputy Commissioner Daly also stirred the pot in commenting on Seattle as a potential franchise location this week.  As long as there's a finite number of teams, there will always be a community on the outside, looking in.

Which brings me full circle.  I don't feel sorry for the City of Atlanta.  I don't feel sorry for the ownership of the Thrashers.  I don't feel sorry for the inept team management.  These are civic leaders, rich guys and supposed hockey experts who have collectively fallen flat on their faces.  Why should we feel for them?  They had more opportunities to make it right than we can count, and they blew it.  It's a business, and they collectively were colossally poor stewards.

But at a deep level, I feel so, so sorry for the fans like Matthew Gunning - the ones who showed up and cheered when there was so little to cheer for.  This was their outlet, their place for entertainment and joy - and it was taken from them.  And I see so much of the Columbus Blue Jackets diehard fanbase in the tattered remains of the Thrashers fan community.  So much, actually, that it's kind of scary.

If the Thrashers experience isn't a cautionary tale for the Blue Jackets - a swift kick in the pants to get their acts in gear and put a winner on the ice to get the franchise on the right track - I don't know what is.


  1. I sorta feel sorry for the city of Atlanta..

  2. Bird Watchers Anonymous has had several really excellent posts along the way to this debacle. Pressure needs to build on the lease issue pretty soon. Isn't it ironic that Glendale ponied up the exact same amount of money that the CBJ lost?

    But in the end its true. A better on ice product is needed. A big, big off season for this franchise. They really need a Bieksa in the off season, but I don't really see it happening.

    Another brutal commonality between the Thrashers and the CBJ was/is the inability to build a solid defense.


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