In the Spring of 2007, The Atlanta Spirit Group got me. Suckered me good.
I believed in Blueland.
Dubbed as such for its predominantly ice-blue unis decked throughout Philips Arena, it was that homestretch of the '06-'07 season that flickered with just enough hope to reel me in.
As a rookie sportscaster in the hills of northwest Georgia that year, I often made the short trip down to the capital city to get my hockey fix. In retrospect, it was plain, good fortune it happened to be, what can now definitively be called, the best season in the franchise's all-too-brief history.
I saw Ovechkin score an OT winner. I saw Crosby and the Pens win in OT, too. Got to see Wayne Gretzky coach. Shoot, a year later I came back to cover the city's only hosting of the All-Star game. Each of these, the rare spoils of an NHL home, never (and I mean, NEVER) to be a part of Atlanta's sporting culture again.
After seasons of mediocrity, colossal revenue losses, and apparent apathy, the Atlanta Spirit Group -- the partnership which owned the Thrashers, the Atlanta Hawks, and Philips Arena -- sold off the red headed step-child it never even tried to embrace. Atlanta now has the dubious distinction of being known as the only city to twice lose an NHL team (Anybody remember the Flames? 1972-1980).
Despite low attendance hanging over the organization annually like a bad flu, late 2007 saw an injection of energy and excitement. En route to its first, and only, Southeast Division Championship, the Thrashers went 43-28-11, finishing 3rd overall in the Eastern Conference and making its only playoff appearance in 11 years. Home games were regularly in the 17-18,000 attendance range, and Blueland, if only for that moment, became a hostile province for visitors. You had to be there to really believe it.
Yet, like the time spent in the southern metropolis by the club's most talented players -- Dany Heatley, Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov -- the success was short lived. A 4-game sweep to the 6th seeded New York Rangers in that sole playoff showing signaled a quick descent for the upstart Thrash.
I remember thinking at the time how pleased I was to see professional hockey making waves in one of its non-traditional markets. Still, despite the vantage point media access afforded me, I was blind to the behind-the-scenes short-comings of the Spirit Group. They didn't care enough to properly market the team. In a city bursting with corporate headquarters, they didn't try hard enough to find or keep sponsors. And maybe most damning, they never sprouted roots in the multitude of communities surrounding Atlanta. With enough time, the aforementioned players, and plenty of their teammates, saw these glaring ineptitudes for themselves and wanted out. Unfortunately, it was doomed almost from the start.
The Atlanta Spirit Group's estimated losses on its hockey team were $130 million since 2005. The franchise was officially sold Tuesday for $170 million. The one, small bit of redeeming justice is the NHL imposing a $60 million relocation fee, which dips directly into the Spirit Groups wallets and grabs back that chunk of would-be profit. It only seems fitting. You shouldn't be able to make a city experience loss without feeling some sense of it yourself.
With its purchase by Winnipeg, Manitoba-based True North Sports and Entertainment, the Thrashers are now another jewel in the crown that is Canada's national game. Winnipeg, a city with a population short of 750,000, will glady try to do what a booming megalopolis of 5.3 million could not. And a year from now, probably no more than the 17-18,000 that could fit into Philips Arena will even remember what, or where Blueland ever was.