Hockey in Atlanta sadly never truly caught on. The city’s first foray into the NHL began in 1972 with the establishment of the Atlanta Flames. Despite making the playoff in six of their eight seasons; there was little hockey fanfare in Georgia. By 1979-80 the Flames averaged less than 10,000 fans a game at the Omni Coliseum. This would result in their relocation to the more hockey-hungry Calgary. In 1999, a second attempt would be made with very mixed success.
Due to a four-team expansion; Atlanta was awarded another NHL franchise on June 25, 1997. As a result, the name ‘Thrashers’ (the official state bird of Georgia) was a chosen by a fan poll. Their new home Phillips Arena was built on the site of the old Omni Arena. Curt Fraser was installed as the Thrashers first ever team coach and Don Waddell took over as GM. Hoping to make an impact, Atlanta scored a major boost when they were awarded the 1st pick at the 1999 NHL Draft.
With this pick, the Thrashers took big scoring Czech centre Patrik Stefan. Both experts and critics alike were impressed by his numbers for IHL side Long Beach IceDogs. A big season seemed on the cards in Georgia and fans excitedly awaited Atlanta hockey once more. Their first game on October 2, 1999, was a 4-1 loss to New Jersey. Thrashers captain Kelly Buchberger was the scorer of their solitary response.
Overall, the first season a massive disappointment for Atlanta. An embarrassing 82-14-57-7 record summed up a humiliating debut season. Stefan bore the brunt of the fans criticism as they failed to step up the big expectations. A mere 25 points was a poor reward for the Thrashers faith. Despite playing 414 times for the team, Stefan has widely become regarded as one of the biggest draft busts. Only twice the Czech score more than 10 goals in a season and was out of hockey by 2007.
Over the next two season, there would be some signs of improvement. Dany Heatley, the second pick at the 2000 NHL draft provided a scoring boost. However, it was the first overall selection of Russian winger Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001 which would be a game changer.
Consequently, Kovalchuk would succeed where Stefan failed. Taking home the Calder trophy after a blistering debut season. Despite the slow progress, Atlanta hockey showed signs of life. The dedicated fans in the ‘Nasty Net’ section of Philips Arena loudly declared their support. ‘Believe in Blueland’ became the motto in Atlanta. Sadly in 2003, the team would experience a bitter blow as popular centre Dan Snyder died in a car crash caused by Heatley speeding. The team rallied together and managed to pull off an impressive 2nd place finish in the Southeast division. Kovalchuk also had a notable season- tying with Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash with 41 goals.
2006-07 would finally see a breakout year for the expansion team. Coach Bob Hartley had been making slow but sure progress since 2003. With Kari Lehtonen in net and stars Marion Hossa and Kovalchuk scoring regularly- the Thrashers claimed 41 wins and the Southeast title. Finally experiencing a postseason berth, the Thrashers would be swept in the first round by the New York Rangers.
Unfortunately, their final seasons in Atlanta would see little success. They hosted the 2008 NHL All-Star game but failed to finish higher than second in their division. Hartley was chopped in 2007 and his replacements John Anderson then Craig Ramsey did little to improve fortunes. To the dismay of Thrashers fans, Kovalchuk was traded to the New Jersey Devils in February 2010 for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors and Patrice Cormier. The loss of their key star was felt all around the Philips Arena.
Their final season once again saw Atlanta hockey go out with a whimper. Finishing 4th in the Southeast despite a risky nine-player trade with Chicago earlier in the season. Their final home game was a 5-2 loss to Pittsburgh on April 10, 2011. Penguins winger Mike Comrie scored the final ever NHL goal in Blueland. Financially broken and seeking to relocate, the franchise was subsequently sold to True North Sports & Entertainment in May 2011.
As a result, Winnipeg hockey fans rejoiced as the return of the Winnipeg Jets became a reality. After two failed attempts, Atlanta is unlikely to see an NHL return any time soon. The team had great ideas but could never seem to gel the individuals together. Sadly ‘Believe in Blueland’ never came to fruition.