November 15, 2010 :: 7:43pm ET
Light at the end of the tunnel
TFP Editor-in-Chief David Pagnotta chats with Atlanta Thrashers
president Don Waddell about the state of the franchise.
TORONTO, ON -- Every time the topic of
relocation pops up, the Atlanta Thrashers are always the first or
second team mentioned. Regardless of the time of year, or what happens
to be going on in the NHL at the time, when the theme is discussed the
Thrashers are unwillingly brought to the table.
Atlanta's not a hockey town. Nobody shows
up, anyway. They've only made the playoffs once. Their owners, when
they're not in court, don't care. The list of excuses people create are endless.
Do the Thrashers need some help? Yes, and
they'll be the first to admit it. But that doesn't mean they're next
in time to pack up and jump ship.
The Thrashers ownership group, Atlanta
Spirit LLC, which also owns the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and Philips Arena,
has been involved in lengthy litigation that is expected (key word) to
be resolved in the New Year.
That's a good thing for prospective
owners/partners lurking on the sidelines.
Until then, though, it's business as usual
for the Thrashers. Management, the coaching staff and the players
haven't been overly concerned with how the club's ownership situation
will play out. Their primary focus, as it should be, has been the
Through the first 18 games of the season,
the Thrashers are tied with Boston for the eighth and final playoff
spot in the East and have pieced together a fairly diverse offensive
"I think overall we've been pretty
competitive," Thrashers president Don Waddell told me. "We've had only
a couple of dog games or even dog periods.
"Right now, when we get scored on, we
become a little fragile. I think it's just a learning process for
everybody trusting each other and trusting the systems that we're
The Thrashers made a number of changes
this past off-season, bringing in a new head coach in Craig Ramsay and
a new goalie in Chris Mason, and
completing several trades that have welcomed the likes of Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien.
"These guys are good players and had
success (with Chicago)," Waddell said of leading scorers Ladd and Byfuglien. "They're
both put into more of a high-profile line with our team because we
have a more balanced team. A lot of teams, you look at say,'who's the
stars of your team', and you could point to two or three guys. With
our team, if you ask five people you'll probably get five different
answers. We've got to do it by everybody contributing."
An underlining factor into the acquisitions
of Ladd, Byfuglien, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager from Chicago was to
allow Stanley Cup champions to spread their experiences around the
"I truly believe that winning breeds
winning," Waddell explained. "Once you win something, there's nothing
like it. The attitude helps the other players and picks up everybody's
That winning attitude should brush off on
some of Atlanta's other players, but experiencing a winning season is
also a priority.
With Ladd and Byfuglien leading the
charge, Bryan Little, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Niclas Bergfors and
Alexander Burmistrov need to experience success on their own. The
Thrashers have built an extremely solid corps of young talent and the
more games they get under their belts, the better the stability of the
franchise will be.
"The way the coach Ramsay plays
guys, he's a big believer of playing four lines, for the most part,"
Waddell said. "It's going to create opportunities for a player that
used to only get 6-7 minutes of ice time, now he's getting 12-13
minutes and finding ways to get the job done. We said to the guys at
the beginning of the year that we're going to need scoring from
When Waddell brought in Rick Dudley two
seasons ago and promoted him to general manager this past summer, the
franchise's hockey wisdom immediately improved. Dudley has a knack
for spotting talent and while he travels around the league looking for
ways to improve his club, Waddell and assistant GM Larry Simmons can
focus on contracts and the business side of the sport.
"Rick and I go back 25 years," Waddell
said. "This wouldn't work if Rick and I didn't have a lot of trust in
each other. We're around the team everyday. I keep him filled in (when
he's on the road), and he makes sure he talks to coaches after every
game. The trust factor between him and I is the number one reason why
this will work."
So as the organization's on-ice product
slowly improves, the main concern surrounding the Thrashers is its low
attendance. The fans know it, the players know it, Waddell knows it.
"There's no doubt we have a low fan base
right now," he said. "If you back up a few years, the year that we won
our division and went to the playoffs for the first time, I always
said if you could sustain it that's where you're going to build your
fan base much deeper than it is.
"Short term runs are nice, of course, but we're going to have to
sustain something for multiple years before we really capture as many
fans as we'd like."
Waddell doesn't like excuses, and while he
isn't about to dish them out now, he understands that Georgia is a
non-traditional hockey market. I've been to a few Thrashers home
games, as well as the All-Star Game in 2007, and I've questioned the
longevity just like everyone else. But I've also witnessed the
potential (the arena, by the way, is by far one of the best in the
NHL). The second-half of the season, though, always produces better
crowds. It worked in Raleigh and Tampa, and given the necessary time, it can work in Atlanta.
"The reality is college football in the
south is big, even high school football on a Friday night, they get
125,000 people," he added.
"Saying that, we felt this year with our
team, if we could have a good first half of the year, that once we got
the sports page and people look for things to do, we want to be the
choice for them. And the way you do that is by making sure you are in
a playoff race, that you're competing on a regular basis and you have
something to showcase for the fans."
The Thrashers changed their slogan this
year to "A Brutally Good Time," with the intent of attracting a new
breed of hockey fan. And by new, I mean new.
"What we decided this summer, and this was
early in the summer time, is that we have 10,000 hardcore hockey fans
that pretty much are going to come whenever they can," Waddell
explained. "There are 4.5 million people in Atlanta; we need to reach
a different population. We went out of the box, a little bit, and
tried to do a lot of non-traditional hockey marketing. We know who our
hockey fans are, but we need to reach other people to get them into a
game. If you're not already a fan, it's a hard game to learn and get
excited about on TV. We're trying to reach out to a lot of people who
have never been down to our arena and get them to test it.
"Once you get people in there, it
doesn't mean they're going to become season ticket holders, but if
they have a good time and you put on a good show and you stay
competitive, there's a good chance they're going to come back again
during the year."
The Thrashers have been subject to a lot
accusations criticism over the last month for making
acquisitions to appease the local
community. Given how large of an African American population Atlanta
has, various members of the media have pointed fingers at Waddell and
the Thrashers, suggesting the only reason they started the season with
Kane, Byfuglien, Johnny Oduya, Nigel Dawes and Anthony Stewart was to
give in to city demographics.
Wasn't it only a few years back when Scott
Gomez played for New Jersey that pundits were criticizing the Devils
for failing to use him in marketing campaigns to attract the local
Firstly, this is ridiculous. Secondly, it
makes sense, from a marketing standpoint, to use what you already have
in messages that can relate to your demographics. And third, Atlanta's
moves were strictly hockey decisions.
"We go ahead and make that trade (for
Byfuglien and Co.) and everybody thinks we're building our team for
our marketplace," Waddell said, chuckling. "The only thing that's
going to make things better in Atlanta is by having a winning hockey
team. Whatever the make-up of the team is, it doesn't matter. The
bottom line is, do you have the players to compete to make your team
As the Thrashers move ahead with a
youthful core, fans should be excited by what they see on the ice.
It's not going to translate into immediate sellouts, but you've got to
"Our attendance is what it is. It's not
very good. There's no doubt about it," Waddell acknowledged. "It needs
to be better; we need to be better as a team. That's what's going to
drive (bigger crowds)."
It will also drive more investors.
Waddell admits there has been a lot of
interest in purchasing the Thrashers, but most of those inquiries have
been unrealistic attempts. Some are merely out there to gain a little
"We have lots of tire kickers," he said.
"Most of these deals (that get completed) you never hear about until
it's getting down to a stretch run. So the guys that are out there,
usually making noise about buying a team, usually are those tire
kickers. Very rarely do you have somebody with that kind of wealth
coming out and saying 'Yeah, I'm going to go out and buy this team.' "
Once a court decision is made, the current
owners will be in a better position to entertain offers and explore a
variety of possibilities. I'm aware of one interested party that is
doing its due diligence, but will not leverage the public or media in
their attempts. The Thrashers have been affected by their current
ownership situation, and it's prevented them from pursuing some free
agents over the years.
"Financially, are we restricted? We are,"
Waddell indicated. "We are always going to be one of the lower payroll
teams in the league. It's a combination of things. It's a combination
of some of the ownership limits, because of what they're dealing with,
but it's also because of the attendance. If I went to the owners and
said, 'If we spend $5 million, we are going to increase our attendance
by 3,000 people', they'd be all for it."
Atlanta's plan of attack was simple. After
trading away Ilya Kovalchuk last season, the team decided to focus on
building from the ground up. As opportunities arise, they'll still be
in a position to make key signings and important additions when
"We laid out a game plan last year for the
next three or four years," Waddell said. "If we can continue to
control salaries, and continue (to watch) our team to get better, when
the time comes to step to the plate and sign one of these guys, we're
going to be in a better position to do that."
And what happens when the team faces
another trade deadline in the middle of a playoff race?
"Ownership wants to win, too," Waddell
exclaimed. "If anybody says our ownership doesn't want to win, they
don't know these guys. They're very, very competitive guys. They're
good people and they want to have some fun with this too, and the way
you have fun is by winning. You have to look for the right
opportunities. We're running on a very low payroll right now, which is
fine, but I also know that if we're in the hunt when time comes, and
we need to go to the ownership, I believe we'll get support for it."
You can question the stability of the
Thrashers' franchise and the longevity of their tenure in Atlanta
until your blue in the face. The fact of the matter is the team is
getting better, they're appealing to a broader audience, they're not
moving any time soon, and most importantly, they have realistic
The Thrashers are becoming an exciting
team to watch. And that only leads to good things.
David Pagnotta is the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Period Magazine.
His columns appear every weekly on TFP.