By Jeff Slate, contributor
Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina with a metro population of 1.2 million, is the home of the 2006 Stanley Cup Champions Carolina Hurricanes. Tampa, Florida, (metro: 3.2 million) is the home of the 2004 Stanley Cup Champions Tampa Bay Lightning. St Louis, Missouri (metro: 2.8 million), a town identified mostly with a humongous arch, is the home of the current Stanley Cup Champions, the St Louis Blues.
Atlanta, with a metro population of 6.2 million, almost as many people as all three cities combined, has no arch, no Stanley Cup, no NHL team but loads of Waffle Houses. At Christmas in Atlanta there are numerous pop-up skating rinks where people skate, some even with a hockey stick and puck. And sometimes they venture over to a Waffle House to gobble down those calorie-packed buttery waffles and afterwards watch their former hometown teams, the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames on TV.
So how did the South’s most dynamic city become the only metropolis with two spectacularly failed NHL franchises? Are the inhabitants to blame? Are there too many other sporting events to attend? Are the facilities inadequate or was location a problem? Or maybe …. was the city tagged with possibly the worst ownership group in the history of not only the NHL but of all sport franchises?
Playing the male version of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” the original nine squabbling housemen of “The Atlanta Spirit Group,” owners of the Atlanta Thrashers, were from Boston, D.C and Atlanta. The Atlanta contingency was comprised of sons and a son-in-law of former Hawks and Thrashers owner Ted Turner and Mike Gearon, former president and chairman of the Hawks.
The combined housemen’s knowledge of hockey was maybe slightly more than the Housewives, but just slightly. The Thrashers were a throw-in — but one the housemen had to accept in order to obtain their real prize, the Atlanta Hawks. It was a package deal. The dysfunctional rulers of Philips Arena, the Thrashers and Hawks thought of themselves as basketball gurus, despite the Hawks never making it past the second round in the playoffs. Within a few short years the “Spirited” men were in court, but not the kind with nets and referees — the kind with lawyers. They were fighting among themselves over everything from trades to the team’s value. One owner called another owner “evil.” The Housewives had nothing on this muddled bunch.
Not surprisingly, the Thrashers stunk. The team concluded 11 inglorious seasons in Atlanta with just one playoff appearance, resulting in a 4-0 sweep by the New York Rangers. Not one playoff win in 11 years. Yet Atlanta fans were asked to support the squabbling, disingenuous bunch and their consistently losing teams. The lone playoff year, 2006-7, the team drew a respectable 16,240 per game, more per game than either Boston and Chicago, two of the Original Six NHL teams.
The Atlanta Flames inaugurated NHL hockey in the Georgia capital in 1972. The team attracted 12,516 per game, more per game than the New York Islanders, the other expansion team of ’72. And that with a record of 25 wins, 38 losses and 15 ties.
The Flames played at the now defunct Omni, an arena which Cliff Fletcher, the team’s general manager, described as “out-of-date when it opened.” There was no revenue from luxury suites, TV money was minimal and the Flames, though qualifying for the playoffs six out of eight years, never won a playoff series. The team’s overall record in Atlanta was mediocre, but compared to the other mid-70s Atlanta pro teams, mediocrity was hardly shameful. In fact, in five of their eight Atlanta seasons, the Flames posted winning records. And much of the metro area’s north side, where thousands of transplanted white collar professionals from northern cities had settled, was quite taken with the Flames. The family that moved to Dunwoody from Oak Park, Illinois would continue to root for the Chicago Blackhawks, but they would still go to the Omni and watch the Flames. As long as they weren’t playing the Blackhawks, they’d root for the Atlanta squad. The Flames developed players such as Tom Lysiak, Eric Vail and Willi Plett who were recognized as among the league’s best in their rookie seasons. Those guys and certainly the team’s popular coach, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, would never have to worry about paying for their drinks at any of the Roswell Road taverns. Though the team’s failure to come through in a playoff series peeved the fan base, for a few years the Flames reflected city leaders’ hype: Atlanta was regarded as an emerging international city with progressive ideas,new attitudes and more ways to enjoy life. The NHL seemed all a part of that.
But when it comes to professional sports, Atlanta is a front-running town. By the late ’70s, attendance declined significantly. There was already talk of the team finding another city. Politicians and business leaders were implored to buy tickets and talk up the Flames. What sounded even better than a politician pulling strings, however, was the Flames’ acquisition of a newly-minted American hero, Jim Craig, the goalie for the USA’s 1980 Olympic hockey team. The team that won a gold medal after defeating Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Finland. It was called the “Miracle on Ice,” and the star of the miracle was Jim Craig, who stopped 36 of the 39 shots in the match against the Soviet Union. Less than a week after the USA team won its gold medal, Craig was guarding the net for the Flames at a sold-out Omni. It was another brilliant night for Craig, stopping 24 shots in a 4-1 victory over Colorado. Making his second start 13 days later, Craig made 27 stops in a match against the Los Angeles Kings. Maybe, Atlantans thought, this guy’s for real — and maybe the Flames won’t move. Such optimism was uncalled for. On March 25, Craig made his final start against the Edmonton Oilers in which another promising player by the name of Wayne Gretzky scored two goals on Craig. That followed an even worse performance against the Rangers in New York. Sadly, Jim Craig couldn’t even make it through one month as Atlanta’s toast-of-the-town.
As the 79-80 NHL season was wrapping up, Flames owner Tom Cousins let it be known he wanted to sell the team. The Flames’ playoff failures and declining attendance added to Cousins’ problems as he was already struggling to vast real estate holdings together. The actor Glenn Ford, promising to keep the team in Atlanta, made an offer but it didn’t come close to what Cousins wanted. However a consortium of Canadian businessmen made an offer of $16 million and on May 21 it was announced the team would move to Calgary before the start of the next season. Left to skate in Calgary, a metro populace of 1.6 million. Calgary kept the name Flames, despite its historical tie to Sherman’s burning of Atlanta. Whatever, Atlanta hockey fans felt burned and they would again as the Thrashers fled for Winnipeg in 2011. The Manitoba city, population 1.2 million, ditched the “Thrashers” handle to become the second version of the Winnipeg Jets.
The first version of the Winnipeg Jets now make their home in Glendale, Arizona and are known as the Arizona Coyotes. As with the Florida Panthers, playing in the city of Sunrise, Florida the Coyotes are primed for relocation. There is general disinterest in hockey in both Arizona and south Florida and both teams possess what ailed the Flames and Thrashers: poor management. But somehow, at the last moment, the teams survived the dreaded moving vans.
Atlanta never had such a moment particularly with the Thrashers. The Spirited Housemen had so decimated the “spirit” of the team, the city, the fan base, that any chance of any businessman from the area coming in and being the savior of hockey never occurred. There was some interest from Tom Glavine, the Braves Hall of Famer and a one-time NHL prospect. Despite his efforts to entice others to invest, the “Spirit” had zapped all life out of hockey in Atlanta. Glavine was alone. No one wanted in. The Mayor of the city, Kasim Reed, did virtually nothing to rally support for the Thrashers. In contrast to Reed committing taxpayers’ money to partially fund Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s Mercedes Benz Stadium and Hawks’ owner Tony Ressler’s renovation of State Farm Arena (formerly Philips Arena), Reed’s lack of interest in hockey was comparable to the Atlanta Spirit’s commitment to the Thrashers – none.
Two years ago, the NHL expanded into Las Vegas, Nevada. According to all the movies featuring Murder Inc’s Bugsy Siegel, besides killing lots of people, Bugsy was quite the visionary. But never did the hitman, in any of those films, mention hockey in the dessert. The NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup their first year in 2018. Averaged 18,042 per game at 103.9% capacity.
In 2020 the league will add Seattle. Any mention of further expansion usually includes cities such as Houston, Portland, Kansas City, Quebec City and Hamilton, Ontario. Despite State Farm Arena being a first-class facility to host hockey and Atlanta representing the 9th largest market in the country, there is virtually no mention of hockey ever returning to the Georgia capital. Apparently two, not three, strikes and you’re out.
The Real Housewives of Atlanta are in their 11th season, the same number of seasons the Thrashers skated in the city. The Housewives are likely to be back for a 12th. Congratulations Housewives! If only we have had you as owners.