Atlanta Thrashers Never “Had a Fair Shake”

The Thrashers were bought and sold last summer to True North Sports and Entertainment (BridgetDS/Flickr)

Some people run the same routine for certain events.  Whether it’s the way that someone straps on their goalie pads or even how someone brushes their teeth, routines are a big part of what we do every day.  For Saul Lekherzak, attending a Thrashers game 41 times a season was like his drive to work each and every morning.

If it was a game day, you would likely see Saul sprinting to his car in his company’s parking lot before cruising down the freeway to get to spot 302 in the Philips Arena garage well ahead of game time.  Saul would then head to the nearby CNN Center to grab a slice of pizza and then time it perfectly to be on ice level to see the Thrashers begin their pre-game skate when the scoreboard clock hit 16:30.  He and his wife would watch from ice level behind the team’s net and then would make their way to sit in row R, seats 15 and 16.

Saul followed these steps during every home game up until an April 10, 2011 match-up against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  This was the final game in franchise history.

On May 31, 2011, True North Sports and Entertainment bought the franchise and immediately announced that they would be moving the team to Winnipeg for the following season.  Stories broke out across North America that Winnipeg was finally getting an NHL team back.  Jubilation filled the streets of Winnipeg and the entire Manitoba province.

But Saul remained in Atlanta.  He remained in a city that no longer housed an NHL hockey franchise.

“It was a shock to me,” said the now-30 year old that still resides in Atlanta.  “I put a lot of stock into pro sports and I’m a big fan, so I live or die with the team that I’m following.  It knocked me out.  When I found out that it was actually going to happen, there were some very somber days at my house.  My wife was toting a fine line with me because I was bound to snap at any moment.

“Losing the Thrashers is like my worst nightmare come true.”

Lekherzak moved to Atlanta in 1992.  Before he felt that he had “lost touch with the game” in the early 1990s, he had lived in New York and considered himself a Rangers fan.

On June 25, 1997, the NHL announced that Atlanta, along with Columbus, Minnesota and Nashville, would receive an NHL club within the following three years.  The Thrashers started play in the 1999-2000 season.

“There was a tremendous level of excitement that NHL hockey was going to be in our backyard,” said Lekherzak.  “The greatest game on the planet and the greatest league on the planet were going to be back in Atlanta.”

Dany Heatley Wild
Dany Heatley started his career in Atlanta in the 2001-02 season (Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI)

The Thrashers went on to select top-talent and prolific forward Dany Heatley with the second overall pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft and followed that up by taking NHL All-Star Ilya Kovalchuk with the first overall selection in the 2001 Draft.  Exciting times seemed to be in store for the capital of Georgia.

Kovalchuk was one of the lone star players that stuck with the Thrashers for an extended period of time, but was still shipped to the New Jersey Devils in 2010 after not being able to reach an agreement on a contract extension with the Thrashers.

The only glimmer of hope that the Thrashers ever gave their fan base was during the 2006-07 season.  With Kovalchuk still on the roster and crafty forward Marian Hossa leading the way, the Thrashers were able to clinch their first Southeast Division Title and, also for the first time in franchise history, entered the NHL playoffs.

The Thrashers even acquired veteran power forward Keith Tkachuk at the trade deadline, marking the first time that the Thrashers were considered buyers that late in the season.

The division-clinching regular season game occurred at Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta, when the Thrashers beat the division-rival Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 on April 6, 2011.  This combined with the Florida Panthers demolishing the Tampa Bay Lightning 7-2 to send the Thrashers into the playoffs.  The Panthers and Lightning score became final before the Thrashers game had ended.

“They flashed the Lightning score up at Philips [Arena] and the place erupted,” Lekherzak said.  “It was the loudest I had ever heard it.  Everybody knew we were headed to the playoffs.  It was pandemonium.  It was probably one of the most exciting moments that I have had as a sports fan.”

The Thrashers met their fate soon after at the hands of the New York Rangers.  Just 11 days after clinching their first playoff berth, the Thrashers were swept in the first round of the playoffs, being outscored 17-6 in the series.

The team continued their struggling ways after that, never seeing the playoffs again.

One man retained a high-level position within the Thrashers’ organization through their 11-season tenure.  Don Waddell served as the General Manager from their inception year until 2010 when he was named President and Rick Dudley was appointed as the team’s new General Manager.

Many fingers have been pointed at Waddell for never retaining a solid team, with players such as Hossa, Kovalchuk, Heatley and Marc Savard leaving the organization at different points without the Thrashers having reputable replacements.

Ilya Kovalchuk was one of the few star players that stuck around Atlanta for longer than a few seasons.

Lekherzak finds blame in Atlanta Spirit, the partnership that owned the Thrashers.  Legal battles forced one member out of the group in December 2010, which was a long process that took up the better part of five years.  This likely took the group’s focus off its two franchises (the other being the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks), which may have been a factor in the demise of the Thrashers.

“I’m yet to see another franchise owner just let one man run the team as he sees fit and year after year after year have disappointing season endings, just to have him return, have his contract renewed and let him run the team into the ground,” said Lekherzak.  “Our ownership group spent more time fighting amongst themselves in court than they ever did actually assessing what the Thrashers needed.

“I don’t think they ever gave the Thrashers any thoughts and let Waddell take the reins and run it year after year.  Then, year after year we had disappointing results.  In a market like Atlanta, the team has to be good to gain any buzz around the city.  I live in a very heavy college football city.  That’s what the city is all about.  To get a sport like ice hockey actually off the ground as far as developing a fan base, you need to have successful seasons.”

The native of Russia looks beyond the franchise’s internal problems and even points a finger at NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who had been involved in keeping the Phoenix Coyotes in Arizona throughout the Thrashers’ sale process.  Bettman and the NHL even used league funds to buy the bankrupt Phoenix team in 2009 from former owner Jerry Moyes.

The league also blocked a bid from Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, who made plans public that he wanted to purchase and move a team to Hamilton, Ontario.

“There’s not a lot of people in Atlanta who can stand hearing the name Gary Bettman,” Lekherzak said.  “On one hand, he fought so hard to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix.  He fought so hard time in and time out to keep them in the desert but let us just wither and die within a month and a half.”

The Thrashers are not the first team to enter and leave Atlanta.  The Atlanta Flames had financial issues as well before moving to Calgary in 1980.  Atlanta is now the only city in North America to have two NHL franchises pack up and leave.

Lekherzak feels that the Thrashers were Atlanta’s last hoorah with the NHL.

“It’s never going to return here,” he said.  “Obviously, there were extenuating circumstances in 1980 that forced the Flames to Calgary and the same thing with the Thrashers to head to Winnipeg, but I don’t see the NHL coming back unless there was some sort of miracle.”

Lekherzak is still a fan of hockey and even subscribes to NHL Gamecenter Live, the NHL’s viewing mechanism that features all NHL games to be streamed online.  He has been watching KHL games on ESPN3 and has even picked up the Detroit Red Wings as his new favorite team.

Of course, he has found a new rival as well:  The Winnipeg Jets.

“Still to this day, I am very angry about the whole situation,” he said.  “I don’t think we ever had a fair shake.  As a result, we lost our team.”