10 years later: A void in Atlanta after loss of Thrashers

The Atlanta Thrashers made their NHL debut in the 1999 season and played their final game on April 10, 2011.

Chris Thorburn’s phone rang just as an excavator was about to break ground on a backyard swimming pool at his Atlanta-area home.

It was 10 years ago, May 31, 2011, and Kevin Cheveldayoff was on the other end of the phone call. The new general manager of the Winnipeg franchise welcomed Thorburn to his latest NHL team. The Atlanta Thrashers, the organization for which the forward had spent the previous four seasons and made a home and started a family, had been sold and would relocate north of the border. The sale and move had been imminent as the Thrashers concluded the 2010-11 season. Now it was official.

It was painful — then and now.

The literal hole that was about to be left in the soil all those years ago represents the figurative hole still in the Atlanta sports landscape. For the second time, Atlanta had lost an NHL franchise to Canada. It’s been 10 years since the absence of the major sport in the city and the effects are damaging to those with a vested interest in the sport and team.

“It was bitterness. It was sadness. Just a sense of loss,” the now-retired Thorburn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution looking back a decade later. “I had established myself as a player through the organization. I had a great role. I had great coaches who believed in me and gave me opportunities. I was kind of lost because I was going to a new organization and having to prove yourself all over again. How are they going to take you in? Because the Atlanta fans seemed to like me as a player. I loved playing for them. To leave all that behind was so tough. I had to re-prove myself to another market. I didn’t think it was necessary, really. I don’t know if that was my naiveness. It was like a gut-wrenching blow.”

Atlanta Thrashers' Chris Thorburn (27) fights with New Jersey Devils' Mark Fayne during the second period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Dec. 31, 2010, in Newark, N.J.

Credit: Bill Kostroun

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Credit: Bill Kostroun

In Atlanta, a major sports market in the United States, college football rules. However, the city has thriving professional franchises in the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Atlanta United and Dream.

“I think it’s a giant hole in the sports community because we have so many sports fans who come from Chicago, New York, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia,” said Bill Tiller, a former Thrashers season-ticket holder and fan blogger. “Atlanta is a city that people move to. There is such a diverse fan base of great fans who come from those cities that it makes sense, contrary to some people’s beliefs, that Atlanta can support a hockey team.”

According to a 2021 Neilson report, Atlanta is the seventh biggest market in the United States based on media consumption (local television homes). It trails only New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco. Each of those cities has at least one NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL franchise. Smaller markets that have the four major leagues include Washington, Boston, Phoenix, Tampa, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit and Denver.

Atlanta did support the Thrashers in the early days after the city was awarded an expansion franchise and began NHL play in 1999. The team averaged 17,206 fans a game its first season. The Thrashers averaged more than 16,000 in 2006-07 with they won the Southeast Division with 97 points and made the franchise’s only playoff appearance.

Conrad Bromberek of Newnan (left) and Mike Gaughan of Atlanta cheer as the Thrashers.

Credit: Jessica McGowan / jmcgowan@ajc.com

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Credit: Jessica McGowan / jmcgowan@ajc.com

The decline of the Thrashers started in September of 2003 when Time Warner, owner of the Thrashers and Hawks, sold the teams and then-Philips Arena to the Atlanta Spirit ownership group. Following the 2003-04 season, tragically marked by the death of Dan Snyder in a car accident with teammate Dany Heatley, came the NHL lockout and the lost season of 2004-05. Coming out of the lockout, the Thrashers had two strong seasons. They missed the playoffs with 90 points the following year and then made the playoffs, only to be swept by the Rangers in a first-round series.

The core of the team – with proven veterans and young talent – was broken up slowly and surely. The team struggled on the ice, never challenged for the playoffs, and at the box office, with poor attendance.

In the final season, the Thrashers were involved in one relocation rumor after another. A strong buyer, True North Sports & Entertainment, came to the forefront wanting to buy a franchise and bring it to Winnipeg. There were two choices. The Phoenix Coyotes, who originally moved from Winnipeg, were operated by the NHL. The Thrashers had an ownership group eager to sell.

In early May, the city of Glendale committed $25 million to cover operating expenses for the Coyotes for another season. The Thrashers’ fate was sealed. By the end of the month, the sale agreement was officially announced. The Thrashers were sold for $170 million - $110 million to the Atlanta Spirit and $60 million to the NHL as a relocation fee.

Atlanta Thrashers right wing Colby Armstrong (left) and center Marty Reasoner embrace after Armstrong scored a goal.

Credit: Jessica McGowan / jmcowan@ajc.com

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Credit: Jessica McGowan / jmcowan@ajc.com

To this day, team officials, players and fans point to a non-committed ownership for the loss of the team.

“Ten years and I still feel the exact same way when it was 10 minutes,” Tiller said. “This goes squarely at the feet of the Atlanta Spirit LLC, who I affectionally refer to as the octa-cluster. When you look back when they bought the team, they had a dynamic, young team with (Ilya) Kovalchuk, (Dany) Heatley and Marc Savard and a coach who had just recently won the Stanley Cup in Bob Hartley. There was an excitement and an energy. Most fans didn’t realize that while they are watching this going into the lockout and just out of the lockout, when they were having their best seasons, that a cancer had been injected into the Thrashers’ body. A group of people who made it very clear they had no intention of supporting an NHL team here. They gave it lip service.”

Thorburn said he and other players were glued to the situation in Arizona. They knew once the Coyotes were granted a governmental reprieve, their time in Atlanta was coming to an end. They played their final game, a 5-2 home loss to the Penguins, on April 10, 2011. Thorburn and other players attended rallies held by fans in support of remaining in Atlanta. Thorburn said he remembers calling out NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to step in, calling the situation “desperation.”

When fans affectionately dubbed the fourth line – Jim Slater, Eric Boulton and Thorburn – the Greek God line, you tend to want to stick around.

Thorburn was thankful for his six seasons in Winnipeg.

“The way they treated us players, the way they ran the organization, top notch,” Thorburn said. “Good people too. Great experience playing in a Canadian market. That was totally different. A cool experience. It was a great experience and nothing I would ever take back. But at the same time, leaving Atlanta was one of the toughest parts of my career.”

Thirty-one players appeared in at least one game for the Thrashers during their final season in Atlanta, and were on the roster when the team relocated. Only two remain with the Winnipeg franchise, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little (who is injured). Three went on to win Stanley Cups with other teams - Thorburn, who won the title with the St. Louis Blues in 2019, Ron Hainsey and Zach Bogosian. Most of the players are retired. Some are broadcasters, scouts, front-office personnel or coaches.

St. Louis Blues right wing Chris Thorburn waves to fans during the NHL hockey Stanley Cup victory celebration, Saturday, June 15, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Scott Kane)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

The Jets made the playoffs five times in the last 10 years, including the last four seasons. They just won their first-round series, sweeping the Edmonton Oilers.

In Atlanta, Tiller says he still follows hockey, especially during the playoffs, and occasionally meets up with former season-ticket holders, who remain a tight-knit group.

“It’s different following a team that’s out of state from a team where you can literally go to the games, and even get to know the players and the personalities who are on the ice,” Tiller said. “Some people call it grieving. I was pissed. I was sad. All of the negative emotions that you can think of. A lot of people still have what I call the ex-syndrome, there are so mad at their ex that they never want to have anything to do with anything they are associated with. They won’t even go to the arena. I won’t say I took it to that degree but anytime I watch the NHL playoffs, there is a little piece of me that says, ‘Just damn.’”

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