Way back before the purge, Thrashers' head coach Curt Fraser cheers on his guys behind the Atlanta bench. (JOEY IVANSCO/staff photo).
Photo: JOEY IVANSCO/AJC
Photo: JOEY IVANSCO/AJC

Only in Atlanta: A Christmastime firing squad that claimed two coaches

Editor’s note: At a time when sports are shut down, including the canceled Final Four in Atlanta and many other postponed events, we take a look (in no particular order) at some of the bizarre moments from Georgia sports history.

Gather ’round, kids, and we shall tell you a quintessentially Atlanta Christmas story.

Unlike most holiday tales, this one involves no gift-giving, no cheer, no “It’s A Wonderful Life” kind of updraft at the end. The Hallmark Channel never will air it. The Comedy Channel, maybe. Because it involves sports and Atlanta, a combination that so often produces the wry and the weird.

There was a hockey coach of great resolve but poor results, his name Curt Fraser. He had come to town to shepherd an expansion NHL team, the Thrashers, with all the normal difficulties that entails. But he loved his hard-working bunch and never let the losing interfere with the good grind. 

Then on Dec. 26, 2002, Fraser reported to work and was met with a message to see the general manager. It was not a good thing, not a how-was-your-Christmas kind of meeting. For at a 1:30 p.m. news conference that day, it would be announced that Fraser had been fired.

OK, coaches get fired. The Atlanta media certainly had covered its share of dismissals. It was a little bit odd to do it around the holiday, but let’s crank out that story and get back to eating leftovers.   

And, then, there was a basketball coach of high caliber in the college arena who was paid big money to try it with the pros, his name Lon Kruger. He was lured to the Hawks and away from his true calling of guiding the student-athlete. It wasn’t working. But he thought a turnaround was imminent.

Later that same day, the day after Christmas, Kruger got his pink slip. The official announcement didn’t come until around 9 p.m., as Kruger wanted to make sure all his players were informed first.

The phone rings at Kruger’s east Cobb home the night after Christmas. “So,” said Fraser said on the other end, “what’s new?” 

It had become officially strange. The story took on a patina of the surreal as two coaches got Scrooged within hours of each other. Mind you, these were two pro coaches employed by the same corporate overlord – AOL Time Warner at the time – in the same city. Back-to-back announcements of franchises playing out of the same building changing course in mid-season – a never-before-and-never-since-seen combination of circumstances. A regular purge was underway, and it would be a long day on two beats in Atlanta. 

Stan Kasten, who served as president for both franchises, got particularly bloody that Dec. 26.

About all he could say at the time was: “It was terrible thing to have it happen to two great guys. But it was what was the best for the organizations. We did what we had to do.”

“Ho-Ho-Ho, the mistletoe, right? How about that?” Fraser said this week from his home in Dallas. He can joke about it 18 years and several jobs – some of them quite exotic – later. 

Imagine the scene on Christmas Eve when Fraser was enjoying a meal with the general manager as the gears of change already were turning.

“Our family and the Fraser family were very close, and we were having dinner,” Don Waddell, the Thrashers GM at the time, remembered this week. Waddell currently is the GM and president of the Carolina Hurricanes. “The night of the 24th is when we made the decision. I told Stan, we’ll wait until the 26th, and that’s when he shared with me, ‘Well, you won’t be alone.’

“Regardless if I’m friends with someone or not, I couldn’t do it on Christmas Day.”

Who says that pro sport is heartless?

The portrait Lon Kruger back when he was the new Hawks hope as a coach. (JOEY IVANSCO/staff).
Photo: JOEY IVANSCO/AJC staff

This day of scorched earth unlike about any other around here was not without cause. Fraser was 64-184-31 in his three-plus seasons in Atlanta as the only coach the Thrashers had known. In his third season with the Hawks after being hired away from Illinois, Kruger was 69-123 with the Hawks.

Still, at the time, Kruger said he didn’t see it coming. 

“The last six or seven games, you didn’t have that feeling (that a firing was imminent),” he said back at the time. “The players were pushing extremely hard. Obviously, we were inconsistent throughout, but the willingness to be a good team remains. I just felt we needed a few wins to get some confidence. Maybe that can happen now.”

Neither coach expressed bitterness about getting canned or for the timing of their dismissal – either then or now – Kruger saying, “I don’t think it’s worth the time to have resentment. I would have liked to get it done, but we didn’t. We didn’t win enough ballgames.”

Fraser figured he was playing with house money for a while, given the life expectancy of most expansion-team coaches. His mentors and his peers kept telling him that he was lucky to have gotten more than two years out of the Thrashers gig.

Fraser even showed up for the Thrashers’ first home game after his firing, watching them from a box above the ice. “I didn’t like it, but I understood it,” he said. “I ended up moving on and couldn’t have wished those boys more luck. I enjoyed going to the games after that, enjoyed seeing everyone. The people I worked with were awesome.”

After a brief stop as an assistant with the Knicks, Kruger returned to where he belonged, leading both UNLV and Oklahoma back to the NCAA Tournament. He owns the distinction of taking five programs to the Dance (Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and Oklahoma), with Final Four appearances with the Gators and Sooners. He remains at Oklahoma, where he may have exerted his greatest influence on the Hawks by coaching up a freshman guard named Trae Young.

Fraser never again would be a head coach in the NHL, but after a few stops as an assistant and one stop as head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, he went on to great adventures in hockey worldwide. He coached the Belarusian national team in a pair of world championships (2007, ’08). And he currently coaches the Kunlun Red Star team that is the lone Chinese entry in the Kontinental Hockey League, in shutdown because of the coronavirus outbreak.    

The effects of the firings short-term: The Thrashers were 8-20-1(tie)-4(overtime loss) at the point Fraser was fired. They fared better under interim Waddell (4-5-1-0) and eventual full-time guy Bob Hartley (19-14-5-1) the rest of that year.

Kruger’s Hawks were 11-16 through Christmas. His replacement, Terry Stotts, went 24-31 the rest of the way. 

Longer term, of course, neither franchise went on to great glory in the absence of Kruger and Fraser.

For a second time, Atlanta lost its NHL franchise, the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg in 2011. The Thrashers would appear in only one postseason, and go winless.

And how far have the Hawks come since then? Their record at Christmastime this season was a mere 6-25. Kruger’s winning percentage was .361. The only Atlanta Hawks coach with a worst percentage is the current one, Lloyd Pierce (.329).

Meanwhile, the coaches have gone on with their lives, enjoying the Christmas holiday without any traumatic flashbacks getting in the way.

“It’s not even a joke around here (among family) or anything. Nobody says anything. Nobody has ever said anything,” Fraser said.

With much of his crew back home waiting for the coronavirus outbreak to ebb, he then added with a chuckle, “I don’t want to let my kids hear us talking about that time, or I’ll hear about it from them.”

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