ATLANTA - The Thrashers are moving to Winnipeg. But Atlanta fans can still get their hockey fix, as long as they're willing to cheer for a Double-A team.
The Gwinnett Gladiators have been members of the ECHL since 2003, based in suburban Duluth. After getting plenty of calls and e-mails wondering how the Thrashers sale would affect the minor-league franchise, team officials sent out a news release to remind everyone that next season's home opener is Oct. 21 against the Greenville Road Warriors.
"We're here," Gladiators President Steve Chapman said, "and we're not going anywhere."
Gwinnett usually ranks among the ECHL's top franchises in attendance, averaging 5,128 a game this past season. The team recently agreed to a three-year extension of its lease at 11,500-seat Gwinnett Arena and might get an uptick in crowds next season.
After all, the Gladiators will be the only hockey team in town.
"If anything, it will probably create a bump for us," Chapman said. "How big a bump we get, I'm not sure. At the end of the day, for a lot of people the game is the game. Are the guys in Double-A hockey as fast or as skilled as the players in the NHL? No. But they're working hard and trying to move up. The game is still what everyone is in love with."
One thing will change.
The Gladiators had been an affiliate of the Thrashers since entering the league, which gave fans a chance to root for players who might one day be playing right down the road in Atlanta. But, concerned about the Thrashers' shaky financial status, Gwinnett had already allowed its agreement to expire after last season.
The team is still searching for a new parent team.
"We're looking around at different NHL teams and seeing what might be the best fit for us," Chapman said. "Not knowing where the (Thrashers) would be ... we thought it was best to sit back and wait."
Even though it might send a few more hockey fans to the suburbs, the Gladiators aren't happy about the Thrashers leaving Atlanta. The NHL team trained at a nearby rink in Gwinnett County.
"Like anyone else, we're disappointed to see the Thrashers go," Chapman said. "We know a lot of the folks over there. We've been their affiliate for eight years."
There are two other minor-league teams in the state of Georgia, both about a two-hour drive from Atlanta. The Columbus Cottonmouths and Augusta Riverhawks play in the Single-A Southern Professional Hockey League.