The one about Southern Hockey, and the plight of the Atlanta Thrashers

Ahh, Southern hockey. I’m quite the fan of this sport, and love the flair that Southern hockey fans have brought to it. (OK, not all of the flair, I pretty much hate the Ric Flair WOO’s at any rink…). Though some of the panic seems to have died down for the time being, there are countless reports that the Atlanta Thrashers are on their way to Winnipeg, beginning during the 2011-12 season. If this move was to happen, it would have repurcussions for Canes and Checkers fans alike, and for all fans of Southern hockey.

If the Thrashers move, it will be the second time the city of Atlanta has lost a franchise, previously losing the Atlanta Flames to Calgary. The Atlanta Flames were in Atlanta from 1972-1980, and were named after the city’s historic moment during the Civil War when the Union army burned down the city. (As an aside, how great would it be if the Atlanta Flames still existed, a team with naming history based in the Confederate army in the civil war, and they faced the Columbus Blue Jackets, named in honor of the Union army of the same war?) The Atlanta Flames had a really cool logo, and the team kept the name when it moved to Calgary. (I can’t find any reason Calgary would be known for Flames, or why they chose to keep the name, except it was more common to do that in those days of the NHL, than to change like we have in the past 20 years (Jets became Coyotes, Nordiques became Avalanche, Whalers became Hurricanes, etc.).

In 1999, Atlanta was given a second chance in the NHL when they were awarded an expansion team. They became the Thrashers (a scary looking bird of prey, which breathes fire at Phillips Arena when the team scores). They haven’t had great success over the years, making the playoffs only once in their 11 seasons. Atlanta is a tough market for hockey. They have three other major league sports, with the MLB Braves, NFL Falcons and NBA Hawks.

As an NHL fan, I’ve been to a number of games in Atlanta, including All-Star festivities a few years ago, and always had a blast. Tickets were readily available, inexpensive, and the fans were fun to be around. The crowds may have been small, but the people there were passionate and educated when it came to their team, something I admire in a fanbase. I read a piece about how Atlanta only has six sheets of ice, and for the hockey market to develop, it needs more than that…. I’m only aware of two sheets in Raleigh outside of the RBC Center, and Charlotte has three sheets… if you count the Xtreme Ice Center as having two. So I hope how much ice your city has isn’t a measurement of the strength of the market!

Needless to say, as a fan of teams in non traditional hockey markets, I want to see hockey succeed in Atlanta. I don’t want them to move to Winnipeg, with no say in the matter. While I think a city like Winnipeg deserves a team, and has a fanbase to support it, I don’t want to see it happen like this. I can’t even begin to imagine how devastating it would be from a fan’s perspective to see one’s team ripped from them and shipped not only across the country, but to a province that for those of us in the American South, is nearly as remote as places on other continents (unless of course you are Jacob Micflikier, who’s hometown is Winnipeg… otherwise, I’ve never met a person who has been to Winnipeg, or honestly even wants to visit there… no offense, of course, to those of you who call it home!) I know Winnipeg experienced this when they left the Jets to Phoenix, but that doesn’t make this potential move fair, either.

If one was to compare Winnipeg to Atlanta, you’d see some very drastic differences…

Winnipeg has a metro population of 753,600* whereas Atlanta’s is 5,268,860.

Winnipeg would be able to sell out every single game next season in their 15,015 MTS Centre arena (Where the Manitoba Moose of the AHL currently play.) The Thrashers, on the other hand, averaged only 13,469 fans in Phillips Arena this season, which has a hockey capacity of 18,545. According to ESPN, the Thrashers finished 28th in the league in attendance in 2010 with an average of 13,469 per game.

Average temperature in Winnipeg in winter is 3-20 degrees Celcius. Atlanta, by contrast, at it’s coldest in January, has an average winter temperature of 42 degrees (and as we all know, a 70 degree day in winter isn’t out of the question in the South!)

SO…. what does all of this mean to Charlotte? Well, a lot of things. Let’s finish my thoughts off based on the idea that the Thrashers do in fact get moved to Winnipeg (Though, I personally do NOT want to see this happen). My blogger-pall Jason has the best explanation of all of the AHL dominoes that will fall as a result of this (The Moose will move somewhere new, the Chicago Wolves will be without a parent franchise, etc.). More so than the Checkers, the Hurricane’s will be drastically affected by this move. By losing an NHL team in the Southeastern division, either a team like Columbus (I’m ALL FOR THIS!) or Nashville could move to the Southeast, or the decision could be delayed for a year, and Winnipeg’s team would play in the Southeast in 2011-12, forcing a TERRIBLE road schedule for themselves, and requiring Washington, Carolina and the two Florida teams to make three trips EACH to Winterpeg. (And I can assure you, for fans wanting to go on away-game trips, there are no even remotely direct flights from North Carolina to Winnepeg, and driving would take you 27 hours behind the wheel, in good weather (which they don’t have in winter!).

Selfishly, I’d be VERY worried about the Canes game in Charlotte in September, because their opposing team is to be Atlanta. I’m told the Canes would still have this game, but the opponent could change, and the whole rationale behind the game was to give fans in Raleigh a Bobcats game, and fans in Charlotte a Canes game.

This is going to be an exciting offseason… despite the fact I no longer have an AHL team to follow in the finals (my beloved Bulldogs lost to a REALLY BAD CALL with a minute or so to go), so I’m no longer personally invested in the Calder Cup Finals, I know I’ll have more than enough to write about. I already have some fun features planned, and more serious prospect previews in the coming weeks.

I’ll keep you all posted as I hear more about the Atlanta situation, and of course anything and everything that has to do with our Checkers!

*updated to reflect 50,000 previously unaccounted for Winnepeg residents.

Lets Go Checkers


15 thoughts on “The one about Southern Hockey, and the plight of the Atlanta Thrashers

  1. Re: The Calgary Flames – Would they have known at the point the team moved that Calgary would be hosting the Olympics in ’88? It’s a stretch, but maybe they kept the Flames name because of the Olympic torch. Maybe they were even just trying to get the Games to Calgary at that point and thought the name would impress the Olympic Committee?

  2. Emily,

    That’s a good question, and I don’t think your theory is a stretch. When the Flames left Atlanta, the new owners in Calgary held a contest for the naming of the team. The name “Flames” won, since it relates to Alberta’s oil history. The team left Atlanta on May 21, 1980, and the Olympics were awarded to Calgary on September 30, 1981. The Olympic selection process takes quite a long time, so the possibility of the Olympics was likely known about in Calgary during the team name vote. Therefore, I’m sure the Olympics DID have an influence on the team name voting. As a side note, the Flames are the only NHL franchise to keep the same name after moving cities.

    ps: I always wondered how the CBJ’s got their name. And now I know…

    1. The Olympic dates are fascinating!

      I know its not exactly the same name, but when Minnesota moved to Texas, they were still the Stars…. Just not the North Stars. I personally like it when a team keeps some of their old name heritage… Like the Hurricanes kept a nautical theme after the Whalers moved… Stuff like that. It doesn’t have to be exact, but the heritage is nice.

  3. Unfortunately for Thrashers fans (and likely Coyotes fans next season) teams will move if they don’t have sustained success. You said it in the post…1 playoff appearance in 11 seasons.

    Would you want to pay for season tickets to see a team lose season after season. Sure for the first few years you would but after that? If there is no light at the end of the tunnel the fans stop coming to games.

    The owner of the Thrashers has been searching for a buyer for a couple of years with the main intention to keep the team in Atlanta. But no one wants to keep the team there.

    Hockey in the south (and west) struggles unless the teams are successful because the fans have better things to do with their time. For those of us in the northeast (or close to it like us in Hershey) our winters are cold and being indoors is generally the only thing to do. So we will go to games even if the teams aren’t great.

    But fans in Miami, Dallas, LA, Phoenix, Atlanta, Tampa….they aren’t going to support teams that have sustained losing seasons.

    In the end it is a business that requires extensive funding and time. Teams that can’t sustain success are going to struggle to remain in the markets. No matter what market that is…just look at the Islanders.

    1. As someone who lives in a “non-traditional” market, I do side with the idea of wanting to educate and cultivate fans in new markets. While I think there are enough fans in, say, Hamilton and the metro Toronto area to support another team, the bottom line is by moving an NHL team to Hamilton, the NHL is not going to gain more fans. The fans are already there. So despite losing record after losing record, the Toronto Maple Leafs will continue to sell out. I guess the biggest question is do we want to see growth of NEW hockey fans, or do we want to just go with the status quo and only put teams in markets that can support them, win or lose? Is the next generation of Maple Leaf fans going to be able to tolerate losing records every year, or will they move their loyalty elsewhere? It’s more than just a winning record, it’s about fan education. It’s about fan involvement, and many other things.

      I just want to see the fanbase in Atlanta grow, and get the chance it deserves. The NHL has done probably more than they should to keep a team in Phoenix… Atlanta deserves that same level of support before the team is ripped from them.

  4. The fanbase in Atlanta had 11 years to grow and all it did was shrink.

    The situations were different in Phoenix and Atlanta though. AND the situation in Atlanta has been known for some time. The owner has been searching for other buys for multiple years. Fortunately for him he managed to continue paying his bills and maintaining the team during that time…unlike in Phoenix where the NHL took control.

    The NHL tried to help find a buyer to keep the team in Atlanta but no one wanted to invest. From what I understand, which is minimal by the way, he is selling the team for less than what he wants because he is out of time.

    Yes, non-traditional markets are great but the teams have to have success for it to work. Your Canes are a perfect example…plenty of playoff appearances and Cup runs including a championship. That helps grow a fan base.

    Are there fans in Atlanta…yes. Are there fans in Phoenix…sure. Same as in LA, Miami, Tampa, Nashville, San Jose, and everywhere else in the league. But in most of those cities there has been success…except Phoenix and Atlanta.

    So yes hockey in non-traditional markets is good. And yes it can work.

    But in the end…whether its a non-traditional or traditional market…the final result will be based on the success of the team on the ice. Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg are all considered “traditional” hockey markets. And yet all 3 lost teams due to poor performance on the ice which resulted in few fans showing up to watch.

  5. “Would you want to pay for season tickets to see a team lose season after season.”

    No, but I still do. I’ve even renewed for next season. Who knows if ASG will honor their refund policy, especially if it goes into full liquidation.

    But I’m the exception to the rule, and your point is completely valid. If the product is consistently poor, ticket demand will decrease. It’s the same in all businesses, including pro sports.

    1. For what it’s worth, even if the Checkers finished 30th in the AHL, and only won a dozen games in a season, I’d still be one of the first “in line” to buy season tickets for the following year.

      Keeping my fingers crossed for you in Atlanta! (even though your team uniforms are one of the most unfortunate colors in sports… periwinkle? REALLY? and ice girls in short skirts who clean the ice… that’s one thing I HATE in the NHL… ) It’s really great to find another person who appreciates the heritage of sports like I do! Hope to see you in September, I’ll buy you a beer before my team beats your team!

  6. Good point about the Stars team name. I like that they kept the heritage, too. And the name transition worked well for the stars–they play in the Lone Star state.

    Definitely much better than the NFL Tennessee Oilers (after they moved from Houston).

  7. “The NHL tried to help find a buyer to keep the team in Atlanta but no one wanted to invest.”

    That is what’s been in headlines and news interviews for the past few weeks. But, the local media in Atlanta is just starting to investigate further on whether a local buyer has been turned down (see links below):

    It’s too early to say whether those articles are correct, but they raise questions that certainly deserve truthful answers.

  8. Thrashers colors: I agree. Our marketing theme is “Believe in Blueland”. Yet the home jerseys were red. They finally announced the end of the red jerseys, shortly before announcing the beginning of Winnipeg negotiations.

    Thanks for keeping your fingers crossed. We need it!

  9. RE: the number of rinks around the Raleigh area:
    – Rec Zone in Raleigh (one sheet)
    – Ice Plex in Raleigh (one sheet)
    – Factory Ice House in Wake Forest (two sheets)
    – Polar Ice House in Cary (one sheet)
    – Garner Ice House (one sheet)
    – Triangle SportsPlex in Hillsborough (one sheet)

    Source: Helluva lotta crack-of-dawn RYHA games w/ my kid at all these rinks.

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