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Thrashers Move Could Kill Georgia's Growing Grassroots Hockey Culture

Snarky comments are made all of the time regarding "hockey culture" in the South and how there isn't any. Needless to say, those comments are made by individuals who have never been to a game in Nashville or Raleigh - and folks who make those snarky comments about Georgia have never been to Atlanta. In my feature regarding hockey pickin's (colloquialism! I'm trying) if the Thrashers were to leave, I outlined the options for local fans - and there are a lot. The biggest and most obvious choice for fans' loyalty goes to the Gladiators, but there were an awful lot of youth related and college related options, too. What happens to those if hockey leaves Atlanta?

While they won't disappear overnight, without an NHL team to spread hockey cheer the sport will have some issues. The existance of hockey in Georgia, and the South, has grown exponentially since the inception of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992. The blog United States of Hockey took a look at the numbers, and you might be surprised. They look at Georgia specifically, and while it's not millions upon millions of kids, the number of people playing hockey in this state has grown majorly over the last 12 years:

Prior to the Thrashers coming to town in 1999-2000, a total of 911 people were playing ice hockey in Georgia (1998-99). The impact of a new NHL team was immediately felt in 1999-2000, when membership increased by 40.7%. There are now 2,142 hockey playing Georgians, which in 10 years for an area with no hockey tradition is pretty solid.

What makes Georgia’s numbers most encouraging, is that the vast majority of its membership is kids. New hockey players just learning to love the game. Of the 2,142 players in 2009-10, 1,808 (84.4%) are below the age of 18.

Additionally, a steady climb such as the one we’re seeing in Georgia cannot be accomplished without good retention. So not only are kids playing hockey, they’re sticking with it.

Children are kind of the forgotten group in all of this team sale drama. What of the kids who are now in college and getting ready to graduate who started coming to Thrashers games when they were 10 and 11 years old? What of the little kids who idolize these guys. Watch warm-ups and count how many pucks Eric Boulton tosses to the little kids. Read the story of Johan Hedberg's number one fan who he first met at a practice in 2007, and who he made a point of coming out pre-warm ups to sit and talk with - AFTER he was traded to New Jersey. Talk to the kids at Childrens' Health Care of Atlanta who the guys make smile every Christmas. There are a lot of very little people who won't understand when their parents have to explain to them why their favorite guys in the world are moving 2000 miles away.

Check back with SB Nation Atlanta's frequently updated Thrashers sale StoryStream for the latest updates. For discussion, join Bird Watchers Anonymous, SB Nation's Atlanta Thrashers community. For more hockey, visit SB Nation's NHL hub.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.