As of June 21, two NHL franchises have officially failed in Atlanta. After the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary following the 1980-1981 season, it took sixteen years for the league to give the city another try. The Thrashers were announced as an expansion team in 1997, and were on the ice for a scant 11 seasons before the league pulled the plug in the city once again. The sale to True North Sports and Entertainment of the team - the announcement of which was finally confirmed on June 1 - was hailed by some as proof positive that Sun Belt expansion had failed.
What those individuals ignore is, apart from the success of teams such as the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks, and Tampa Bay Lightning, hockey has grown in the non-traditional spheres where NHL teams have made their homes.
Who would have expected to see prospects drafted from Texas, Tennessee, California, and yes, Georgia just twenty years ago? The addition of NHL hockey grows the sport by fostering interest, especially among youth. Continuing that growth without a team is a challenge that the state of Georgia is going to have to face head on. With the Thrashers, the state showed a marked increase in hockey participation in all levels, but most specifically in youth hockey and high school club hockey. The sport grew to 2,000 youth hockey registrants in the state, a group that is in danger of dwindling down without a pro team.
Why is this important? If the NHL is going to return, the league is going to have to look at the market here and realize that there are people familiar with the sport and who love it, and who better to be familiar and to love the sport than children who grew up playing it?
Many middle-aged Thrashers fans were also Flames fans as children, and played hockey (including street) as kids. There was a small but solid group of people here who fell into the category of "hockey fans in their youth." The Thrashers will have an even larger category of those in ten to 15 years. It’s helpful to have a fanbase made up of individuals who are from the state and learned the sport in the state. No mixed loyalties and a 100 percent support for a team means the team’s chance of success is higher.
There is a hockey culture in Georgia, although it is a small one. The best way, if the league decides to ever return here, to get hockey back is to continue to foster it and let it grow. Get your kids playing high school hockey. Go to college games at Kennesaw State University, UGA, or Georgia Tech. Make the drive down to the Gwinnett Arena to watch the Gladiators play. Show people outside of the state that there are fans of the game here. Get attention.
The Gladiators are traditionally one of the top attended ECHL teams and have the largest arena at around 11,500 seats. A solid way to aid in the movement towards an eventual third NHL franchise would be to pack that place every night. Youth hockey, high school hockey ... build the interest in the sport, and then show it to your kids. Show it to your friends at work, your neighbors.
Sure, ECHL hockey is not anywhere near as exciting as NHL hockey, but it’s still a fast paced and enjoyable time. The Gladiators will give you a chance to see some up-and-coming prospects as well as guys who are fighting for their big break - they work hard every game. There’s no excuse to not catch a few games a season, if not more. I’d personally buy season tickets if I didn’t live on the north side of town and if the drive down 85 wasn’t a nightmare. That being said, I fully intend to go to as many games as possible next year.
How will packing the Arena get us an NHL team? Interest is one thing, but money talks. And is loud. A successful professional franchise, even at the minor league level, gets the attention of other individuals who might want to make an investment or expand a league. The American Hockey League has been the victim of more than a few franchise relocations the past five or so years. The market for minor league ownership can be rough, and many of these teams play in smaller arenas that don’t exactly encourage fans to flock to the games. In comparison to older arenas in small metro areas, the state of the art Arena (which is just missing a jumbotron) with a large, established fan base would be alluring. Moving the Gladiators up to the AHL, or moving a team to Atlanta from another AHL market would not be out of the question by any means.
If Atlanta gets AHL hockey and supports it, then the chances for a new Atlanta expansion team increase. By support, I don’t just mean from the fans - who I am pretty sure would support an AHL team. I mean support from the sponsors of the team, local businesses, local press, and the team’s owners. The Gladiators have more obvious community sponsorship support than the Thrashers ever did, and from companies a 20th of the size of the corporations that had their names on the boards in Philips Arena.
The success of the sport and the franchise (be it ECHL or AHL) in Atlanta is evident even though the Thrashers left. Ownership, not the fanbase or interest in the game, is the main culprit here, and it’s something that’s getting lost in the shuffle. Solid owners of an AHL franchise with continued success could get the attention of the league very easily.
If the economy improves and metro Atlanta begins to crawl back to the booming ways of 2000, there’s no economic reason that the city couldn’t support a team again. It’s a city of 5.5 million people and one of the largest metro areas in the nation. It’s home to companies like Home Depot and Coca Cola, who have shown themselves to be good sponsors of the sport in cities with more successful franchises. It’s the eighth-largest TV market in the nation.
Granted, all of these are reasons that we gave, myself included, for why the Thrashers wouldn’t move. We were wrong.
But think about it - the reasons that we gave for them staying, plus an ownership situation that was dedicated to winning and a fanbase that has enjoyed the sport at the ECHL and AHL level for many years... that could be a recipe for return. Even if, in an interview with MacLean’s, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman ruled out a return in the near future - that doesn’t mean that with patience and cultivation hockey is dead here forever.
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