As any Thrashers fan will tell you, February 2011 has been far from a good month. In short, February has been a brutal month for players, coaches and of course the fans, who have not only suffered the dismay and disappointment of yet another mid-winter Thrashers’ collapse, but also sustained disheartening blow after blow with respect to recent off-ice developments. Not even twenty-four hours had passed from the time it was announced that behemoth blueliner Dustin Byfuglien had signed a 5-year contract extension before a bombshell of bombastic threats was lobbed at fans by their oft-feuding ownership group. One thing is certain, no matter what happens in Blueland ON the ice, the Atlanta “dis-Spirit(ed)” group seems certain to perpetrate a blunderous (and many believe willful) act of either deception, negligence or flat-out cowardice OFF the ice. And in my opinion, calling out your fans for not coming out to support a team that has played to a 6–14–5 record over the past two months after it is revealed you’ve been trying to unload the franchise since the very time you acquired it in 2004 smacks of complete and utter cowardice, or just pure arrogance and contempt if you ask others. No matter what you call it, there is no doubt that the loyal, but flagging Thrashers fan base can usually count on“Brucie” (think Peanuts’ ”Lucy”) Levenson and the boys to yank the rug right out from beneath them even when there is apparent cause for optimism. (Banner Artwork Courtesy: Chris Ciovacco of keepthethrashers.com)
At this point, you can hardly blame Charlie Brown for wanting to take his ball and go the hell home for good never to step foot at Philips Arena again!! But alas, the financial condition of this franchise has now moved into dire straits, or as Atlanta based owner Michael Gearon, Jr. phrased it, “choppy waters, stage four rapids.” Well, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more compelling argument for deciding to invest in a $150 million sports franchise, have you? All joking aside, the only thing Gearon accomplished by sounding the panic alarm on the rapidly (sorry, had to do it) deteriorating state of the Thrashers is further alienate an already pissed-off and demoralized fan base. After a successful early season campaign, the emergence of charismatic young stars like Byfuglien, Evander Kane, Ondrej Pavelec and Alexander Burmistrov, and the anticipated prospect of what was perceived to be a bona fide run at the playoffs, the last thing anyone wanted to read was this:
(Chris Vivlamore of the AJC.com writes) “If the ownership group does not get additional financial help in the near future, the franchise could be sold and moved to another city. The Thrashers would join the Atlanta Flames who left for Calgary in 1980.”
“If we are faced with that as the only alternative, that’s what’s going to happen,” Gearon told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview. “I don’t think there is an ability to stomach another $20 million in [yearly] losses. We just can’t do it.
“The reality is we need fans showing up and we need investors or a primary investor.”
As if that statement alone wasn’t painful enough, Gearon decided it would be best to throw this grenade right into the laps of his remaining fans just one lousy day after the announcement of Dustin Byfuglien’s new deal had buoyed the outlook and perception of their fans, most of whom are beyond disillusioned or skeptical. So rather than ride the potential wave of momentum and hope for a legitimate run at the post-season, the owners-in-chief decided it would be better to print a half-page ad in the Atlanta paper signaling their desperate intent to surrender an unwanted asset to the highest bidder with no real assurances that the asset will be kept in Atlanta. It would appear as though the “Spirit boys” are the ones who want to take their ball and run home to Mommy since they aren’t (and never have been) mature and smart enough to play at the “big boy’s table” as my friend and fan Robert Strozier likes to say. Now that the true intentions of this cluster-flop (courtesy to Bill Tiller of the AJC Fan’s Blog) of an ownership group are as clear as day to a host of thousands of cynical fans, the only questions anyone seems interested in are the following:
1) Is there any hope of not just a new potential investor, but a new sole proprietor to rescue this circus of clowns from themselves before they run their “carnival” cruise of lies aground?
2) If market forces dictate the answer to question number 1, is Commissioner Gary Bettman prepared to go the same exacting lengths he employed to rescue the Phoenix Coyotes from bankruptcy and relocation to a waiting and willing Winnipeg in Canada?
The answers to both questions are dripping with mystery at this juncture, but if you wish to dive into the underlying factors that may, in fact, steer both the short-term and long-term course of this wayward vessel, I would urge you to take a gander at the recent article penned by Phil Foley of the Atlanta Examiner.com, who has done some serious digging to unearth some interesting facts to quell some of the uproar, anger and resignation that has begun to envelop the hockey-loving community in Atlanta. Even after reading Mr. Foley’s well-researched article, I still cannot shake the impending sense of doom that has crept into my consciousness like a stealth and evil predator lurking in the shadows of a dark and musty alley. Part of me wishes to believe that Commissioner Bettman will pull out every stop in his book of tricks to keep the Thrashers here in Atlanta, but the conspiracy theorist in me believes there’s a ulterior motive for the recent acquisition of northern Minnesota natives Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart in a recent trade, as the town of Winnipeg, Manitoba is just 114 lonely miles north of Dustin Byfuglien’s hometown of Roseau, MN.
Moreover, today’s economic climate is such that it would not be surprising to learn that the executives who reside on the NHL’s seat of power no longer have the stomach for a protracted and expensive transition like the one we’re seeing occur in Glendale, AZ on behalf of hockey fans in Arizona. In his most recent interviews on the subject, Mr. Bettman has been quick to give his defensive, and somewhat testy, response to anyone who broaches the relocation question with respect to the Thrashers: while the Atlanta franchise has struggled mightily, there are no plans to relocate any franchise, and the NHL stands by its record of preventing such relocation from becoming a realized outcome in any situation since expansion began in the late 90’s. But wouldn’t it be nice for Bettman to come out and say, “under no circumstance will Atlanta’s franchise relocate until the NHL exhausts every avenue of potential in its power” or something to that effect? I realize such comments can be counter-productive in such complicated legal matters, but the fragile fans of Atlanta sure could use some reassuring rhetoric from league headquaters!
Instead, we’ll just have to settle for the positive progress that has been made on the contract negotiations front for one, Andrew Ladd, who happens to hail from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, a not-so-small piece of information considering the aforementioned acquisitions from Minnesota. In a recent article written by the esteemed Thrashers’ beat writer, Chris Vivlamore, Ladd has gone on record to relate the following about his prospects for a long-term future in Atlanta: “We are still working on it (new contract), but both sides are on the same page for sure. I want to be a part of what we are doing here. We kind of need a couple guys to stay and say ‘this is a good place and we’ve got a good thing going here’. It will help out a lot.”
“Sage-er” words have never been spoken. Andrew Ladd is the captain of this team for a reason: because he leads by example with a conviction and seriousness of action that engenders respect from his peers; and it looks as though his genuine character will be manifested again in what is rumored to be a 5 year deal worth in the realm of $20 million. Considering the circumstances of this troubled franchise, and the fact that the requisite winning needed for a playoff run has taken a long winter vacation, Thrashers fans should take heart and rejoice in the fact that two players – both of whom have already been part of a successful Chicago Blackhawks organization, as well as the biggest victory celebration you can hope for as a hockey fan – have committed for the foreseeable future to a distressed and mistreated franchise whose sweater is adorned with a truculent, whirling Thrasher bird.
For now, the commitments of Ladd and Byfuglien will have to be enough to keep the ember of belief and passion burning within the hearts of Thrashers fans everywhere until the shadow of doubt and rumor are replaced with certainty of fact. Till that time, all we can do as Thrashers fans is to keep the faith by going to games (bringing lots of friends!), wearing our Thrashers regalia with pride and earnestly beseeching our civic leaders to open their eyes to the disastrous consequences, both financial and social, of losing a major league sports franchise on account of sheer contempt, lies and willful negligence. The time to act is now and I implore any rational (or irrational depending on your current state) Thrashers fan to write your local community leaders, Mayor Reid and Governor Deal included, as well as the president (William Pate) of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, so they may realize how deep the passion for hockey runs in this community. Note: if you don’t fancy yourself much of a letter-writer, lend your support however you can to help keepthethrashers.com or simply head over to the Thrashers website (atlantathrashers.com) and buy up a bunch of tickets for remaining home games.
Remind these community leaders of not only the negative financial impact — especially that of lost sales tax revenue — of such an outcome, but enlighten them on both the burgeoning youth hockey programs that continue to grow despite a lack of facilities and public sector support and the immense positive impact felt around Atlanta as a result of the $4.2 M that the Atlanta Thrashers Foundation has injected into the community over the past 12 years. These civic and business leaders need to be reminded of how important the Atlanta Thrashers are to the community for reasons that go far beyond the economic success of a downtown area, which is still in need of further development and revitalization. The Thrashers aren’t just a team, but they are an intrinsically important thread in an all too loosely knit fabric of the Atlanta community. The Thrashers are more than just a hobby for a key demographic hailing from colder climes in the North, but rather they are a real and dynamic catalyst for community outreach and charity in a city that sorely needs as many unifying forces in play for growth and stewardship as possible.
PLEASE “WAKE UP” CITY OF ATLANTA!! THE THRASHERS DON’T JUST BELONG TO BLUELAND, THEY BELONG TO ALL OF US WHO LIVE HERE. DON’T WAIT FOR GARY BETTMAN TO “FIND US A SAVIOR”, “RISE UP” AND MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD AND HELP KEEP THE THRASHERS HERE, BECAUSE THE CITY OF ATLANTA NOT ONLY DESERVES HOCKEY, BUT THE CITY OF ATLANTA NEEDS HOCKEY.
About the Author: Accountant / Analyst who has a nagging writing addiction when it comes to hockey. I've been a hockey fan since I was a wee tyke and now my allegiance to the Atlanta Thrashers has me "mentally thrashed". My other long-time passion is the game of golf so I'm a glutton for punishment! As a mid to late 30-something, I'm blessed to have a girlfriend who aids and abets my hockey / blogging obsession. Hockey heroes include: Gilbert Perreault, Adam Oates (Go RPI!), Pat LaFontaine and Marty Reasoner. Follow me on the twitter machine @j_barty_party