The Atlanta Thrashers first began play in 1999, and were actually the second NHL team awarded to Atlanta in the city’s history. So what exactly led to the team leaving their home in Atlanta after only 11 seasons? In today’s video we’ll take a look back at how bitter in-fighting and legal battles within the team’s ownership group eventually led to their sale and relocation.
Hockey Flames Out
Atlanta is one of the unique cities that have gotten the opportunity to have not one but two NHL teams in its history. The first team, the Atlanta Flames, came into the league in 1972 and would play in Atlanta for eight seasons. While the team made the playoffs in most of their time in Atlanta, the Flames had a hard time attracting fans to games and struggled financially. The team was eventually sold to Canadian businessman Nelson Skalbania and he moved the team to Calgary, where they became the Calgary Flames in 1980. Twelve years later pro hockey returned to Atlanta when the International Hockey League’s Atlanta Knights formed. They too, had a fairly successful run as a team on the ice, winning the Turner Cup (The IHL’s championship trophy) in 1994. But their achievement would also become their undoing, due to the Knights success, the city of Atlanta became very interested in attracting another NHL team to the area. The team essentially was forced out of the city, once their home arena was set to be demolished (which I’ll get more into in a moment) and replaced with a brand new facility designed to attract an NHL franchise. The Knights moved to Quebec City, hoping that it would be the best fit possible for them (since Quebec had recently lost their NHL team, the Nordiques to Colorado). The old Atlanta Knights changed their name to the Quebec Rafales, but ultimately would only end up playing only two seasons there before folding for good afterwards.
As previously mentioned, Atlanta wouldn’t have to wait long for hockey to return to the city. Billionaire businessman Ted Turner (seen here with Jimmy Carter and Captain Planet ) after having already become the owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, and MLB’s Atlanta Braves, among many, many other things, wanted to bring back the NHL to Atlanta. The city of Atlanta, and the NHL, shared Turner’s enthusiasm for wanting to bring back the NHL to Atlanta. The league essentially greenlighted a new franchise on the condition that a new arena would be built to replace the aging Omni Coliseum (where the Flames used to play, and the Atlanta Knights had been currently playing). The Omni Coliseum which opened in 1972 lacked the modern amenities such as luxury boxes and high-end club level concourses, and as the building had aged it had become structurally unsound. The supposedly weather proof steel that was used to construct the Coliseum wasn’t made to withstand the humidity of Atlanta’s climate and so the steel was starting to rapidly rust. This made the Omni Coliseum unsafe to play in, even as a temporary home to the new team. After searching for the best possible sites around Atlanta to build the new arena, it was decided that the most suitable option was to demolish the Omni Coliseum and build a new structure in its place. With the new arena plan set, on June 25, 1997 the NHL formally announced a four team expansion to the league, going from 26 to 30 franchises. The cities included in the expansion were Nashville, Columbus, Atlanta, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, with Nashville beginning play in 1998, Atlanta in 1999, and Columbus and Minneapolis starting in 2000. Ted Turner’s TV station, Turner Broadcasting System, also known as TBS were granted the ownership rights to Atlanta’s new team. And not wasting any time, just a month after expansion news, the Omni Coliseum was demolished on July 26, 1997, with construction of the new “Philips Arena” beginning shortly after.
Atlanta’s Second Chance
A fan vote was held to decide the name of the new expansion club. The first choice of the fans was the Flames, of course a nod to the old NHL team that had once played in Atlanta. Obviously there was a major problem with that choice, as the Flames still existed and were currently in Calgary. So the team went with the second choice which was “Thrashers”… no not Trasher, Thrashers, yep there we go… this was in honor of Georgia’s state bird the brown Thrasher. And coincidentally, the geographical area that would later become the city of Atlanta was originally called “Thrasherville”, and not because of the bird but because of a pioneer named John Thrasher, who founded the first settlement there. In fact, a Thrasherville historical marker now stands on Marietta street, not too far from where the Thrashers old home arena is currently located. For the team colors, the Thrashers decided that not one, not two, not three, but six different colors would represent the team on their uniforms. The six colors included incredible adjectives such as, Atlanta Midnight blue, Thrasher Ice Blue, Georgia Bronze, Capital Copper, Peachtree Gold, and White… yep… just plain old white. The Thrasher logo depicted the Thrasher bird holding a hockey stick in its wing, while the alternate logo was more of a simplified overhead version of the bird, which was also shaped like the letter “T” for Thrashers.
On June 25, 1999 the NHL held a special expansion draft for the Thrashers, which allowed the team to pick one player from each of the other teams (excluding the other active expansion team, the Nashville Predators). With their first pick, the Trashers chose goalie Trevor Kidd from the Carolina Hurricanes. However, Kidd never played for the Thrashers as he was immediately traded to the Florida Panthers for four players, Gord Murphy, Daniel Tjarnqvist, Herbert Vasiljevs, and Justin Cox. The very next day, on June 26 the regular NHL draft was held in Boston, where Atlanta ended up with the first over pick thanks to a somewhat complicated swapping of picks – mainly between the Tampa Bay Lighting, the Vancouver Canucks, and the Thrashers. The Canucks were determined to draft both Daniel and Henrik Sedin, (seen here wishing they weren’t actually twins so they wouldn’t be asked to keep taking photos like this). A part of the trade swap with Atlanta was that the Thrashers promised not to pick either one of the Sedin twins with their first overall pick. And with that, the Thrashers chose center Patrik Stefan, who would go on to play six seasons with Atlanta. But the 1999 draft ultimately didn’t pan out the way the Trashers would have hoped. Their first two picks, Patrik Stefan and Luke Sellers were later widely considered as major busts. In a ranking of the best and worst draft picks in league history, NHL.com even listed Sellers (who only ever played one NHL game) as the worst 30th overall pick of all time. And Stefan didn’t fare any better, as he too was ranked the worst pick of his draft position, which was the number one overall pick. Also making matters worse, eleven of their draft picks that year were not even playing in the league by the time the Thrashers moved away in 2011. Meanwhile both the Sedin brothers would go on to have hall of fame level worthy careers and play for the Canucks for another 17 seasons. With the draft behind them, the team then moved into their brand new home, Philips Arena which officially opened on September 18, 1999 and had a construction cost of $213.5 million dollars. The new arena also became home to the Atlanta Hawks, and later the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream (who played there until 2019).
The Early Years (1999-2003)
The Thrashers played their first ever game on October 2 1999, in a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Their first win came three games later when they defeated the New York Islanders 2-0. But things didn’t go so well after this, as the Thrashers only managed to win 14 games in their first season, losing 61 games, which totalled only 39 points in the standings. This actually placed them as having one of the worst records in NHL history, with a winning percentage of only .238. But things did fare a little better in the stands, as at least initially there was great interest in the team throughout the city. Home attendance averaged just over 17,000 fans a game for their first season, which put them just outside the top ten in attendance figures for the 1999-2000 season. Some of those fans became season ticket holders who sat in a dedicated section of the arena known as the “Nasty Nest”, where they’d yell at the opposing team’s players and presumley the opposing fans as well.
After the disastrous 1999 draft, the Thrashers turned things around the next year when they drafted Dany Heatly, seen here on a prom date with the Calder Memorial Trophy for Rookie of the Year which he won in 2002. Prior to that, Atlanta drafted another future star player in Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001, who would later finish second in voting to Dany Heatly for Rookie of the Year. Even with the influx of new talent of the team, the Thrashers continued to struggle on the ice. They slightly improved their record in their second season, winning 23 games and losing 47, finishing just ahead of the Tampa Bay Lighting for last in the division. But then they regressed in their third season, winning 19 games and losing 52, while finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference. At this point, the excitement and interest around the brand new team had begun to fade. Crowd sizes fell to an average of 15,262 in 2001 and fell again to 13,668 in 2002, which put them close to the bottom of the league for home attendance.
Tragedy Strikes (2003-2007)
By 2003 TimeWarner, the parent company of TBS, had decided to divest itself of it’s sports teams in order to place more focus on their media companies. With that, TimeWarner sold both the Thrashers and the Atlanta Hawks to a semi-local business group named Atlanta Spirit, LLC. I mentioned semi-local, because the business group was actually made up of three smaller companies, one based out of Boston, one out of Atlanta, and one out of Washington D.C. This is an important fact that will come up later in the video, but essentially the three companies worked together as Atlanta Spirit, LLC., and on September 21, 2003 the sale of both teams was finalized. Just eight days after the sale was completed, tragedy struck when star player Dany Heatley crashed his Ferrari while driving with teammate Dan Synder. Heatly sustained serious injuries which included a broken jaw, a broken wrist, a torn anterior cruciate ligament (also known as an ACL), and a torn medial collateral ligament (known as an MCL). But the worst news came five days after the accident when, tragically, Dan Synder succumbed to his injuries due to septic shock. Heatley had been speeding, driving around 80 miles an hour, and had lost control of the car. Criminal charges were filed against Heatly for reckless driving, but were later dropped and he was ordered to do community service while serving three years probation. Heatley, who had been enjoying an ascension of stardom due to his great play, was the featured player on that year’s EA Sports NHL video game. But immediately following the car crash, EA Sports pulled the cover, and swapped it for one that featured Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche instead. For the entirety of the 2003-04 season the Thrashers wore black patches with Synder’s number 37 on them and the team dedicated the season to his memory. That season the team’s play improved somewhat with the Thrashers jumping out to an early lead in the division. But towards the middle of the season, the team went on a losing stretch, only winning 3 games over a six week period. The Thrashers managed to just miss out on making the playoffs, and ultimately they’d finish the season in second place in their division behind the eventual Stanley Cup winners the Tampa Bay Lighting.
Any hope to build on the momentum they had from the previous season would be crushed in the following year due to a season-long lockout of the NHL. The lockout began on September 16, 2004, which was mainly over a dispute between the players and the owners over instituting a salary cap. The lockout lasted through the following summer, on July 22, 2005 when a new collective bargaining agreement was reached that allowed for both a salary cap and revenue sharing between the owners and the players. The Thrashers looking to make their first playoff run, signed new additions to the team such as forwards Scott Mellanby, and Bobby Holik, goalie Mike Dunham, and defensemen Jaroslav Modry . At that same time, Dany Heatley, still dealing with the after effects of the fatal car accident had requested a trade, understandably wanting to put the tragedy behind him. Heatley was later traded to the Ottawa Senators for Marion Hossa and Greg de Vries . Even with the team once again narrowly missing out on the playoffs during the 2005-2006 season, the new signings would eventually pay off as the team bounced back the next year. With the help of star players like Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa, and Slava Koslov, the Trashers won 43 games and captured the Southeast Division title for the first time. While also clinched their spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time as well. On April 12, 2007 the Thrashers hosted their very first playoff game in front of a sold out crowd in Atlanta. The excitement about the playoffs wouldn’t last long though, as unfortunately for the Thrashers, they were swept in the first round by the New York Rangers. This marked a disappointing end to an exciting season, and it also would become the first and only time the Thrashers made the playoffs while in Atlanta.
The Decline (2007-2010)
For the 2007-2008 season, the team got off to a slow start, losing their first six games in a row. Not wanting to wait around for things to get better, Head coach Bob Hartley was let go on October 17, 2007, the day after losing their sixth game. Coincidentally he would later be hired by Altanta’s other old team the Calgary Flames in 2012 . Harltey was replaced by the Thrasher’s General Manager Don Waddell , who stepped in as the interim head coach. The one bright spot that season was that Atlanta, who was originally scheduled to host the 2005 NHL All Star game but was cancelled due to the lockout, finally got to host their first All Star Game on January 27, 2008. The Eastern Conference defeated the Western Conference, 8-7 with former Thrashers player Marc Savard scoring the winning goal much to the delight of the Atlanta crowd. The team had seen a brief resurgence of high attendance during their playoff run season of 2006-2007, thanks in part to the team playing well and of course the endorsement of Lil’ Jon, but it didn’t take long for the Thrashers attendance to once again begin to dwindle. It also didn’t help that during that time, the global recession due to the housing market crash in the United States took a toll on places like Atlanta. With the economy taking a downward turn, that meant that even some of the most die hard fans of the Trashers couldn’t afford to come to as many games as they once did. The attendance got so bad, that by 2010 the Thrashers were at times drawing less than 10,000 fans during games. This led to some creative, but also pretty desperate attempts to get fans back to the games. For example, the team pulled a marketing stunt where the Thrasher’s mascot “Thrash” was arrested over trying to steal a Zamboni from the team’s practice rink. The Atlanta police department, in on the joke of course, charged Thrash with “Grand-Theft Zomboni”, and the team announced that the only way to bail Thrash out of jail was if the team sold 5,000 more tickets to their December 2010 home games.
But It wasn’t just the team that was struggling during this time, cracks began to form in the ownership group as well. Steven Belkin , (seen here after challenging Jason Terry to a game of one-on-one) was one of the owners from the Boston side of Atlanta Spirit LLC. Belkin claimed that the other owners had breached their contract, over a trade dispute with the ownership group’s other team the Atlanta Hawks. During the summer of 2005, the Hawks and the Phoenix Suns agreed to swap Boris Diaw for Joe Johnson. All of the owners approved of the trade, except for Belkin who voted against it. Belkin actually had controlling interest over the Hawks during that time as he was the team’s managing Governor. But the trade went ahead anyways, and Joe Johnson officially became a member of the Hawks. This triggered a lawsuit between the owners, where other members of Atlanta Spirit LLC wanted to force Belkin out. The ownership dispute wouldn’t be settled until 2010, when the Atlanta and Washington D.C. sides of Atlanta Spirit bought out Belkin’s shares. Because of this, it gave the Washington D.C. ownership members 50 percent controlling interest in Atlanta Spirit. Coming back to the hockey side of things, the situation there wasn’t much better. Even though the team was in playoff contention during the 2009-2010 season, the Thrashers had failed to reach a new extension deal with their star player Ilya Kovalchuk. GM Don Waddell felt he had no choice but to trade Kovalchuk rather than lose him to free agency. On February 4, 2010, Kovalchuk and defenseman Anssi Salmela were traded to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors , Patrice Cormier , a first round draft pick, and the two teams swapped second round draft picks as well. Trading Kovalchuk away, who had been the team’s captain, effectively marked the end for the Thrasher’s hopes for a playoff run. The team would lose 16 out of the final 27 games of the 2009-2010 season, finishing second in the Southeast division, behind the Washington Capitals.
Sale and Relocation (2011)
With all of the turmoil surrounding the team from poor play on the ice, low attendance, and ownership battles, rumors began to circulate that the team could relocate to a new city. By early 2011, Atlanta Spirit claimed that they had lost $130 million dollars over the last six years, mostly stemming from the lawsuit and settlement with Steve Belkin. Majority owner Michael Gearon announced in February 2011, that it would be looking into selling the team. There were several offers made in an attempt to lure the Thrashers away, from groups out of Kansas City, Hamilton, Ontario, and Quebec City, but also there were a number of potential buyers who claimed they wanted to keep the team in Atlanta as well. Ultimately, Atlanta Spirit had difficulty finding any suitable local investors interested in purchasing the team, and the best offer came from a Canadian business group named “True North Sports & Entertainment ”. Formed by American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose co-owner Mark Chipman, True North Sports’ aim was to bring back the NHL to the Winnipeg area. The city had been without NHL hockey since 1996, when the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Phoenix, Arizona and became the Phoenix Coyotes. In fact, the group came extremely close to buying the Phoenix Coyotes in 2010 and returning the original Jets, before the deal fell apart after the city of Glendale (where the Phoenix Coyotes arena is located), at the last minute, promised to cover for the Coyotes losses for that season. True North Sports then switched their focus to buying the Atlanta Thrashers from the struggling Atlanta Spirit ownership group, and a deal was officially announced on May 30, 2011. True North Sports planned to move the Thrashers to Winnipeg and rebrand the team as the new version of the “Winnipeg Jets”. However, part of the deal was that what remained of Atlanta Spirit would actually keep the rights to the Thrashers name and logo. A little while after, Atlanta Spirit, LLC. formally changed their name to Atlanta Hawks, LLC, after deciding to keep their focus solely on basketball.
The Thrashers final win came on April 7, 2011, when they beat the New York Rangers 4-0 at Madison Square Garden. Three days later, just over 16,000 fans came to see the Thrashers final home game, when they were defeated by the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2. On June 21, 2011 the team made the official move to Winnipeg, and planned to play at the MTS Centre (now known as the Canada Life Centre). With the city now having two NHL teams come and go, the potential future of the NHL returning to Atlanta at this point is pretty bleak. The Thrashers legacy does live on a few ways though, as of the 2020-2021 season there are just four active former Thrashers still playing, Zach Bogosian, Braydon Coburn, Evander Kane, and Blake Wheeler. Also, up until recently the banner for the one and only division title that the Trashers won was still hanging at their old home, Philips Arena (now known today as State Farm Arena). But it appears when State Farm took over the naming rights to the arena they may have moved the banner elsewhere, but I could be wrong on that so as always feel free to correct me in the comments.
So what did you guys think about the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg and becoming the Jets? And what did you think about the owners of Atlanta Spirit LLC suing each other and eventually causing the sale of the Thrashers? Let me know in the comments below!