Hey all! In case you haven't been keeping up with your calendar, datebook or IPhone (seriously, who uses Blackberries!? Psssh!) May 31st is a very significant day in the history of Winnipeg sports. One year ago today, Mark Chipman of True North Sports and Entertainment along with business partner David Thompson and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the NHL's return to Winnipeg.
While this was a joyous occasion for many in the Keystone Province, we would be remiss in overlooking what this day meant to a longstanding Atlanta Thrashers fan.
Without further adieu, we present to you Laura Astorian's thoughts on the day the Thrashers ceased existence. This is Part I of a two-part series we will run today.
Follow her on Twitter @hildymac.
Hey, everyone. I want to start by saying how much I appreciate TJCAPS giving me the chance to offer up a Thrashers’ fans memories and feelings of May 31st. I’m a history teacher and a stickler for remembering the past, so this is something that, a year later, needs to be done.
May 31st, 2011 was a lot of things to a lot of people. Joy to you guys, and well placed joy at that. To us down here? Heartbreak, mostly. Sure, there weren’t massive legions of Thrashers fans. Atlanta is a terrible sports town. I’m not originally from there (those who know who I am know I’m from St. Louis), and it’s always flabbergasted me how; a) people care more about college sports than professional ones and b) people only like teams that are winning. Obviously, for a very good stretch of their actuality, the Thrashers weren’t winning. They had a bandwagon following starting in 2005-2006, when they came ever so close to the playoffs, and it hung around for the first half of the 2007-2008 season until it became glaringly obvious that the team was trying as hard as humanly possible to tank and draft Steven Stamkos, a feat they obviously failed at. After so many years of poor to average hockey, well, it wears on you as a fan.
As the bandwagon fans left, the actual fans stayed and dealt with the frustration. Losing Hossa. Losing Kovalchuk. Losing games. Annually, we hoped that next year would be the season where management would finally get something right; where they would make a good trade. It happened in the summer of 2010 -- not coincidentally when the team promoted Rick Dudley to General Manager. Fans were happy that we were the team that got pieces of the Blackhawks’ Cup squad, and Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien were supposed to be cornerstones of the franchise -- players to build around.
And they are, just not here.
Last season started with a lot of hope, but it faded shortly before the new year. Then, in February, we heard that Byfuglien had signed an extension. Good news!
The Atlanta Spirit Group, LLC couldn't let the fans cling to any bright spots. This was an ownership group that selectively spent when they felt like it and forced the Coburn for Zhitnik trade in a moment where they believed they could "win now!" -- an ideology that got the team nowhere.
Well, they had to knock the wind out of our sails. Michael Gearon Jr. got on Atlanta radio and spoke to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, saying that the team was in need of a buyer ASAP. Fans always heard their Thrashers knocked around in relocation rumours thanks to attendance problems -- problems which were partially caused by fans boycotting the team due to their contempt for Don Waddell and Atlanta Spirit. Maybe this was the team's chance to get a local owner, or at least a group that could recognize that they owned a hockey team. The only player Gearon could remember during his radio spot was Byfuglien. He even had trouble remembering Kovalchuk’s name. If that's not a red flag for a Gawd-awful ownership group, then I don't know what is.
We hoped people within the community cared. We were led on by local radio personality and in-arena interviewer John Kincade of the notion there was this mystery buyer, this "Balkan" as he stupidly referred to him in an All My Children reference. Appropriately enough, the whole thing caused a soap opera of speculation and worry, but not too much, because the Phoenix Coyotes would be the ones returning to Winnipeg, right?
Rumours of the sale to True North Sports and Entertainment floated around in the week preceding the sale. Fans banded together and held our Tail-Wake party down in the parking area by Philips Arena. It wasn't, as the press thought, a "save our team" rally. It really was more of a chance for all of the fans to enjoy each others company again and talk about the team. To remember the good times and the frustration before they were gone for good. There was a sense of resignation, and it continued through to the 31st.
The sale, obviously, was a success. Up to the literal end, the Atlanta Spirit was selling season tickets, trying to raise the hopes of the two people who didn’t know what was really going on.
When the news officially broke, I just felt numb. I think that a lot of us did. Obviously that numbness led to understandable anger on our part, though a decent bit of it (I personally feel) was misplaced on the city of Winnipeg and TNSE. The anger needed to be directed at the seven gentlemen who ran the team out of town, and frankly, I think that most, if not all of us will despise that group until they are railroaded out of Atlanta for continuing to run the NBA's Atlanta Hawks into the ground as well.
I remember watching the press conference announcing the sale. It was just Gearon speaking to local media, when about halfway through he started to explain that his son was going to be disappointed because he was such a huge Thrashers fan. While he was going on and on about his kid, he actually started to cry on television. I found the whole thing hysterical. Here he was, concerned about how his kid would react, when there were hundreds or thousands of other kids who loved the team, not to mention the thousands registered for youth hockey in the state thanks to the interest that the Thrashers generated. I wished he could sit down with each and every kid and explain to them what happened. Every kid that met Kovalchuk at practice. The little girl who absolutely adored Johan Hedberg -- the one that he always made a special point to talk to, even when he came back as a New Jersey Devil. The seven year old boy who learned Finnish because his idol, Kari Lehtonen, was from Finland. I wanted him to have to tell those little kids that hockey was gone, and that it would probably never come back.
Some Thrashers fans are now Winnipeg Jets fans. Some hate the Jets with all of their heart. Some are indifferent. Some only follow their favourite players. Some have just given up on the NHL all together due to the callousness that Gary Bettman and Bill Daly showed to the fans. The last part I find the saddest, because hockey is -- and I think we all can agree on this -- the greatest sport on earth. I hope it gets a chance to return to Atlanta eventually, because there is a large market here for it. There are youth teams, high school teams, and university teams that have become more prevalent because of the Thrashers. I live three minutes away from college hockey during the season, and I love it. People are Gwinnett Gladiators fans, freshly-minted Nashville Predators fans, or they’re transplants who have reverted to their original team. I converted so many friends to hockey from other sports just by taking them to one game. It’s hard to understand why a market with so much potential was allowed to have such incompetent owners to begin with, and it’s harder for us to understand why it was given up on so easily.
Myself, personally, wish the Jets all of the best of luck and I’m not upset a bit at the city of Winnipeg or Jets fans. That’d be silly. I despise the former owners for taking my second favorite team away from me. I miss my workweek routine of having dinner and a couple $5.00 32 oz beers in the CNN Center to relax as much as I miss the friends who felt more like family. I’d be lying if I said that we weren’t jealous of the attention that the team is getting now, but it’s deserved. I’m happy that the guys are getting so much affection from their new fans. You’ve taken good care of them so far and I’m sure that it’s only going to get better. As painful as it is to watch players like Evander Kane and Alexander Burmistrov grow someplace else than Atlanta, I think that all of us are happy and thankful that we at least saw them start here.