DULUTH, Ga. — The signs are still up outside the IceForum, a rink in suburban Atlanta.
“Atlanta Thrashers Practice Facility,” they proclaim, right below that familiar logo of a hockey stick-swinging bird.
Not anymore, of course.
The Thrashers are now in Winnipeg, re-christened the Jets and set to play before sellout crowds every night in hockey-crazed Canada. Atlanta will have to make do with a minor league team, the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators, after becoming the first city in the NHL’s modern era to blow it with not one, but two franchises.
“It’s an enormous emotional loss,” said Michael Gearon Jr., who was one of the Thrashers’ co-owners. “The hardest part for me, by a long shot, is what it meant to my family. We were all huge fans.”
Unfortunately, they didn’t have a lot of company.
The Thrashers were traditionally one of the worst-drawing teams in the league. They struggled on the ice, too, making the playoffs only once during their 12-year existence. A last-ditch rally to save the team drew only a few hundred die-hards. When the Thrashers shuffled off to Winnipeg in early June, the reaction around Atlanta was a collective, “Hey, when does football season start?”
But for a resilient group of hockey lovers, losing the Thrashers cuts deep — especially for those who remember the last time it happened.
Lisa Reisman was just 12 years old when the Flames moved to Calgary in 1980, the league’s first foray into the Deep South lasting a mere eight seasons. She remained a fan, however, cheering from afar as her old team won the Stanley Cup within a decade of its northward migration. Her loyalty paid off when Atlanta was awarded another expansion franchise that began play in 1999, this one taking its name from Georgia’s state bird instead of the city’s fiery destruction during the Civil War.
This season, Reisman was looking forward to being a full season-ticket holder for the first time after being able to afford only partial packages in the past. She was already making payments when the Thrashers left for Winnipeg. Instead of getting 41 games at Philips Arena, she had to settle for a refund.
“This is the second time it’s happened to me,” Reisman said. “It (stinks). It really does. I’m not going to watch it, even on television.”
She’s bitter at Gearon and the other former owners, a group known as Atlanta Spirit that sold the Thrashers for a reported $170 million. She’s even angrier at NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, claiming he quickly brokered a deal with Winnipeg interests without giving hockey a fair chance to succeed in her city.
“I’m not going to give the NHL anything until Bettman is gone. I hear he’s got three years left on his contract. I can wait,” Reisman said. “I’ll probably still keep up with the scores. I’ll still be a Flames fan. But I seriously doubt I’ll be a Winnipeg fan, even though it’s the same guys. I’m too mad about the way it happened.”
Hockey isn’t totally dead in Atlanta.
The Gladiators are getting ready for their ninth season in the ECHL. In a striking twist from the long-term attendance woes that plagued the Thrashers, Gwinnett (a suburban Atlanta county) has traditionally been one of the better-drawing franchises in a league that’s two steps down from the NHL, roughly the equivalent of Double-A baseball.
Last season, the Gladiators ranked fifth in the 19-team ECHL with an average or more than 5,100 a game at their modern arena along Interstate 85. They’ve never ranked outside the Top 10 in attendance.
Gwinnett expects a bump from Thrashers fans making their way to the suburbs. Already, team president Steve Chapman said new season-ticket sales are up about 20 percent over last season. By opening night, the team hopes to sell about 2,000 season packages.
“If fans come out and really give it a chance — meet the people around ‘em, enjoy the facilities and everything we’re about — I guarantee we can fill the void,” Chapman said.
Reisman is among those who traded NHL tickets for a much more affordable season package with the Gladiators. She says everyone who sat around her at Philips Arena has purchased tickets in the same spot — along the goal line — for the Arena at Gwinnett Center. She’s at least willing to give this lower level of hockey a chance to fill the void, with a caveat.
“It depends how much they fight,” she said, her voice rising with excitement. “That’s the best thing about the game, when they’re kicking the living crap out of each other. I know these guys are trying to get to NHL. But it should be fun. If they play that type of hockey, hell yeah, it’ll be great.”
Gearon has no plans to attend a Gladiators game. He’s not sure he could bear to watch another hockey team in Atlanta while the franchise he once owned is playing somewhere else. In fact, he spent all but a couple of days this past summer away from the city, saying he needed time to deal with the disappointment of not being able to find a way to save the Thrashers.
“I wasn’t running away from anything,” Gearon insisted in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I was just drained. When you have a loss, sometimes you just need to get away.”
Atlanta Spirit remains a convenient target for disgruntled Thrashers fans. There’s no disputing the team generally had one of the league’s lowest payrolls, losing many of its top players through trades or free agency. Also, the ownership group was embroiled for years in a legal dispute with one of its former partners, which undoubtedly hampered efforts to line up new funding.
Still, Gearon feels the partnership did everything it could to keep an NHL team in Atlanta. He points out that none of Atlanta’s most prominent — and richest — citizens stepped up to help the team. Atlanta Spirit had been seeking additional investors since 2008, and Gearon made it clear in February that the current ownership couldn’t continue to absorb some $20 million a year in losses.
“I feel bad as an Atlantan,” Gearon said. “I don’t feel bad about the way we did things. I was the one guy in the city who stepped up and did what I could, when there were other people in this city who didn’t step up and could have. I’m secure enough in myself — other than feeling bad for my kids — that I can handle it. I don’t agree with people who say it’s my fault. Over eight years, we put more than $100 million into that team, basically subsidizing entertainment for the city of Atlanta.”
Gearon’s youngest son still sleeps in a bedroom decorated with Thrashers gear, everything from the pillowcases to the pictures on the wall. There’s still plenty of kids playing the game, too, at several rinks scattered around the sprawling suburbs.
But some youth hockey officials fret about the long-term impact of losing the NHL.
“It’s going to affect us in the future,” said Curtis Morrison, who runs a program for some 250 kids and young adults at the Marietta Ice Center. “It’s going to affect us more at the learn-to-play, learn-to-skate levels. When kids had an opportunity to go to a Thrashers games with their parents, it obviously piqued their interest right away.”
The Gladiators are trying to fill that void, taking over some of the outreach programs that had been handled by the Thrashers.
The ECHL team also has taken advantage of the locker room and weight-training facilities left behind at the IceForum, using them during training camp.
“Before, we’d be driving over here with our gear on,” said Paul Flache, a Gwinnett defenseman who was originally drafted by the Thrashers. “We’d put our skates and helmets on when we got here. This is definitely nicer. I hope the guys appreciate it.”
Gladiators coach John Wroblewski is confident the minor league team will take away some of the sting from losing the Thrashers. Recently, he went out for a few beers at a bar near his home and was surprised to overhear several people discussing the NHL season that begins Thursday.
“They told me they used to go to Thrashers games,” he said. “Now they’re planning to come see us.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963