Atlanta Thrashers: The Fall of a Franchise


Getty Images

Image via the Bleacher Report

Stanley Shivley, Writer

In 1999, Atlanta got its second taste of Professional Hockey when the Thrashers were birthed into the NHL. Only 12 years later, the Thrashers left Atlanta for Winnipeg to become the Jets. How could a franchise so young dissolve so quickly?

Prelude: Flames & a Second Chance (1972-1997)

In 1972, the Atlanta Flames joined the NHL. While in Atlanta, the Flames were never better than mediocre and never made it past the first round of the playoffs. In 1980, the Flames were relocated to Calgary, citing low attendance and lack of arena upgrades. Hockey did eventually come back to Atlanta, when in 1992, the Atlanta Knights, a Tampa Bay Lightning farm franchise, joined the International Hockey League. The team did fairly well for a farm team, even winning the 1994 IHL Championship. Much like their predecessors, the Knights moved to Canada. Big news came shortly after this, as on June 18, 1997, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman awarded Atlanta its second NHL Franchise to expand the game of hockey to the southeast. A fan vote gave the team the name “Thrashers.” The name stemmed from the Georgia State Bird and Atlanta founding father, John Thrasher.

Expansion and bright future (1999-2002)

Atlanta had slim pickings in both the expansion and entry draft. No franchise-boosting players were available in the expansion (I.e., a 2017 Marc-Andre Fleury or 2021 Mark Giordano). Additionally, Due to rules regarding the Nashville Predators’ expansion a year prior, only 21/28 teams could have goalies available. The 1999 NHL Entry Draft was even worse. For context, 1999 had one of the weakest draft classes in NHL History. The Thrashers, who would’ve had the 2nd pick in the draft, swapped it for the 1st overall pick from Vancouver, who had acquired it in a trade. The Thrashers selected Patrik Stefan as their first draft pick in franchise history. The Czech center was considered the best prospect the class had to offer, even though he had suffered two concussions before 19. With the next two picks, the Vancouver Canucks chose Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, respectively. The twins won back-to-back Art Ross Trophies, Henrik won the Hart Memorial Trophy, and led Vancouver to a Stanley Cup Finals Appearance in 2011. On the other hand, Patrik Stefan went down as one of the worst draft busts in NHL history. The team did horrible in their first season, only winning 14 games. However, things started to look bright in Atlanta when in 2000 and 2001, the team drafted wings Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk. Heatley won the 2002 Calder Trophy and took home the All-Star Game MVP trophy a year later. The team also acquired center, Marc Savard, in a lopsided trade in 2002 and drafted Finnish goalie Kari Lehtonen in that year’s Entry Draft.

Organizational Changes (2003-2005)

On September 21, 2003, Ted Turner sold the Thrashers as well as the Atlanta Hawks to Atlanta Spirit LLC, a group of businessmen from around the US. While no one knew it at the time, this change in ownership would kill the Atlanta Thrashers. To keep it brief, the Atlanta Spirit group was less worried about the Thrashers being in debt for years and more about suing each other over Joe Johnson getting traded to the Hawks. On September 29, 2003, tragedy struck when rising star Dany Heatley crashed his car while speeding through a residential neighborhood in Atlanta. In the passenger seat was Thrashers center, Dan Snyder. Heatley survived and had to endure many surgeries; however, Snyder fell into a coma and died a week later at the young age of 25. Heatley faced charges for the death of Snyder, didn’t play a game until January 2004, and had copies of EA NHL 2004 with him on the cover pulled from stores. The accident left a dark cloud over the Phillips Arena and the City of Atlanta as a whole, and the team’s future would never be the same as it was once considered. The Thrashers, who were predicted to do some damage in the east and potentially make the playoffs, were a shell of themselves and had another losing season in a year dedicated to Snyder. Everything came to a halt on September 15, 2004, when a Lockout was declared in the NHL, and five months later, the entire season was canceled. Atlanta, who had a pretty good fanbase, never recovered from their losses this season. When the Thrashers returned to play in 2005, Dany Heatley requested a trade. Heatley, who was still recovering from the 2003 car wreck that took the life of his friend and teammate, Dan Snyder, cited the mental trauma of the accident to be the cause of this. This was unfavorable to Thrashers fans and even Heatley’s father. The Thrashers dealt Heatley to the Ottawa Senators for Slovakian star Marian Hossa, who ironically had signed a three-year extension with Ottawa earlier that same day.

The Greatest Season in Atlanta Thrashers History (2006-2007)

Despite the loss of Marc Savard, who had become Atlanta’s 2nd all-time leader in points in his time with the team, the Thrashers had their best and only winning season in franchise history in 2007. Kari Lehtonen blossomed into a star goaltender, and Marian Hossa filled Heatley’s shoes. However, Ilya Kovalchuk did have a surprising dip in productivity. In a strange move at the deadline, the team traded 2nd Year defenseman Braydon Coburn to the Philadelphia Flyers for 14-year veteran Alexei Zhitnik. Zhitnik proceeded to have the worst statistical year of his career and retired a season later, while Coburn became the Flyers’ best D-Lineman for the next decade. Other key veterans such as Scott Mellanby, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Jon Sim helped the team to a Third Seed in the Eastern Conference and capture the Southeast Division title, the only banner from the Thrashers still hanging in State Farm Arena to this day. However, Atlanta’s Stanley Cup dreams came short as they got swept by the 6th seed New York Rangers in a disappointing first-round series.

A Total Collapse & Move to Winnipeg (2008-2011)

At this point, questions arose on how effective Bettman’s experiment in Atlanta was. Due to the great recession, the Thrashers already struggling fanbase were less likely to buy tickets to a mediocre hockey team. This was when things started to get weird, and I mean weird. I already mentioned Atlanta Spirit didn’t care about the Thrashers as much as their NBA counterpart, so in an attempt to fill seats with fans; the Thrashers signed a 48-year old Chris Chelios from the AHL, had the Atlanta Police Department “arrest” the team’s mascot in a Zamboni street chase, and acquired black players as a part of a marketing scheme to make the team popular with Atlanta’s minority population. All of the Thrashers’ talent started to disappear around this time. Marian Hossa was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2008 Deadline, Kari Lehtonen was sent to the Dallas Stars in 2010, and Ilya Kovalchuk was dealt to the New Jersey Devils that same year, all of which Atlanta got very poor compensation. Around this time, the team did pick up some good prospects in the draft, including Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and Alexander Burmistrov. None of these players would last long in Atlanta, however. In 2010, both the Thrashers and Phoenix Coyotes struggled financially and were on the chopping block of being moved. The City of Glendale put up $25 Million to cover the Coyotes’ losses to save their team, and Atlanta Spirit did what Atlanta Spirit does; put no effort or care into their hockey team. On May 31, 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to True North Sports & Entertainment, a Winnipeg-based group. On the day of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, the Atlanta Thrashers officially became the Winnipeg Jets, a revival of the franchise lost to Phoenix in 1996. Much like the Thrashers’ predecessor, the Flames, The Jets became immediately better after the change in ownership. Evander Kane blossomed into a star with the Jets, Bryan Little had a 52 Point season in 2014, the team eventually made it to the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals and has made the playoffs every year since. Guys like Patrik Laine, Mark Scheiflie, Kyle Connor all could’ve played in Thrashers jerseys if Atlanta Spirit was competent enough to have some hope in their team.