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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 on-ice product.

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 attack.

"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 playing."

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 locker room.

"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 game."

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 everybody."

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 of 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 Latino community?

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 better?"

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 start somewhere.

"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 extra publicity.

"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 necessary.

"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 expectations.

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.
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