Originally created 06/27/99

Thrashers land Stefan



MARIETTA, Ga. -- The cheering started when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, looking down from a giant television screen, welcomed the league's newest team.

It got louder when he revealed a flurry of trades had brought the first pick in Saturday's entry draft to the Atlanta Thrashers.

Finally, there was a thunderous roar when Thrashers general manager Don Waddell stepped to a podium a thousand miles away and announced that 18-year-old Patrik Stefan would carry the burden of an entire franchise.

"I had chills," said Ed Ward, who joined the Thrashers a day earlier with a lot less hype. "When I saw all those people cheering, I was like, `Holy smokes, this is exciting."'

Several hundred fans -- not to mention Ward and another of the team's new players, Andrew Brunette -- gathered around the big-screen TV at a suburban Atlanta sports bar to watch the entry draft from Boston.

While the bulk of the Thrashers' first-year roster will be comprised of players like Ward, one of 26 chosen in Friday's expansion draft, the entry draft provided a glimpse at the future for the city's neophyte hockey fans.

The Thrashers were scheduled to pick second behind Tampa Bay, but they moved up to No. 1 as a result of four last-minute trades that cost Atlanta a conditional third-round pick next year.

Stefan, a native of the Czech Republic who was rated as the top prospect by most scouting services, was a popular choice in Atlanta. The 6-foot-1´, 205-pound center has the potential to be a dynamic scorer, after the Thrashers went heavily for defense in the expansion draft.

"I can't wait to move there," Stefan told the crowd via a telephone hookup from Boston. "I want to feel the fans. I want to see the new rink (Philips Arena). I want to be part of the city. I know we have a great future."

The Thrashers picked defenseman Luke Sellars from Ottawa of the Ontario Hockey League in the second round (30th overall) and forward Zdenek Blatny from Seattle of the Western Hockey League in the third (68th overall).

While those two players will likely return to their junior teams next season, Stefan is expected to contribute right away in Atlanta. The top scorers taken in the expansion draft were Mike Stapleton and Terry Yake, who managed just nine goals apiece.

"They had to pick someone who could step in and put some goals in the net," said Don DeVane, a season-ticket holder who jotted down each pick on a piece of paper and scanned a copy of The Hockey News for tips. "He will get people excited."

The only concern about Stefan is his health. The teen-ager suffered two concussions this past season while playing for the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the International Hockey League.

Limited to 33 games, he still managed 11 goals and 24 assists against competition that is just a notch below the NHL.

"I'm not sure about Stefan's health," said another fan, Mark Hylbak. "I know concussions are part of the game, but they can end someone's career. Just look at Brett Lindros."

While the adults munched on chicken wings, drank beer and discussed Stefan's medical history, the kids gathered outside in the parking lot for a street hockey game as cars zoomed by on nearby Interstate 75.

"It's kind of chancy taking Stefan, but it's a bold move," Hylbak said. "And I like what they did yesterday in the expansion draft."

Most of the fans wore the blue-and-copper colors of the Thrashers, with a smattering from other teams such as the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks and Colorado Avalanche.

The most interesting attire was worn by Hylbak, who dug deep into his closet to pull out an old Atlanta Flames jersey. The city's original hockey franchise moved to Calgary in 1980.

"I guess I'm a throwback," he quipped.