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Column: Atlanta hockey fans cheering Anybody But The Jets
By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATLANTA (AP) The playoff run by the Winnipeg Jets has ripped the bandages off some old wounds in their former home.
Hockey fans in Atlanta - yes, they actually exist - are still bitter about the way they lost the Thrashers seven years ago , a move that deprived this city of a team for the second time and probably any chance of ever again being a member of the NHL club.
In the A-T-L, a popular refrain of the postseason seems to be A-B-T-J.
Anybody But The Jets.
"I won't support the Jets," former Thrashers fan Fred Johnson wrote in an email. "In fact, I'd like to see their fans suffer for a lot longer like we did."
Instead of suffering, the Jets and their fans are thriving . Winnipeg reached the Western Conference final against the Vegas Golden Knights - a sort of double-whammy for Atlantans, who have seen what their former team could have been while getting a tantalizing glimpse of what a well-run expansion franchise can do its very first season.
Founded in 1999, the Thrashers managed just 14 wins and 39 points in their debut year, which remains the worst full-schedule total in almost a quarter-century. The Golden Knights piled up 51 wins and 109 points, captured a division title and were just two wins away from playing for the Stanley Cup going into Game 4 of their series against the Jets on Friday night.
"It's not hard to feel like just yesterday Atlanta was an expansion team," said another Thrashers fan, Tiffany Burns. "I couldn't have imagined how surreal it would have been to be a part of something so successful so quick."
In contrast to the Golden Knights, the Thrashers never really had a chance in Atlanta, doomed by a bickering group of owners who spent more time suing each other than caring about what was happening on the ice, clueless management and inept coaching, and a roster perennially low on talent.
The lone highlight came in 2007, when the team captured the Southeast Division title and finally made the playoffs for the first (and only) time.
The euphoria didn't last long.
The Thrashers were swept in four straight games by the New York Rangers. Atlanta began the following season with six consecutive losses, leading to the firing of coach Bob Hartley, and the dismantling of the franchise commenced a few months later.
In what became an all-too-familiar scenario, the frugal Thrashers dealt away Marian Hossa rather than lose him as a free agent - one of many horrible deals engineered by general manager Don Waddell, who somehow kept his job throughout the Thrashers' entire existence without ever really demonstrating that he knew what he was doing.
Anyone remember Angelo Esposito, a supposed top prospect who was acquired in the Hossa deal?
The Thrashers always seemed to operate under a dark cloud, most tragically exhibited in 2003 when star player Dany Heatley lost control of his Ferrari on a narrow Atlanta street, struck a wall at high speed and killed teammate Dan Snyder . Heatley recovered but was never the same, eventually requesting a trade so he could get a fresh start elsewhere.
The Thrashers soon followed Heatley's lead. In 2011, after a proposed move of the bankrupt Phoenix franchise to Winnipeg fell apart, the NHL quickly engineered a deal to send Atlanta's team north in place of the Coyotes , collecting a hefty relocation fee and ridding themselves of another troublesome franchise.
While it's impossible to deny that the team has been more embraced by hockey-mad Winnipeg than it ever was in Atlanta, this city's fans have long gotten a bum rap that goes all the way back to its first NHL team.
Yes, the Flames lasted only eight years in Atlanta before moving to Calgary in 1980. But they averaged more than 10,000 fans every season (not a sure thing in those days) and outdrew the NBA's Hawks every year but their last. That franchise was largely doomed by the economics of the late 1970s.
For the Thrashers, it was a similar story.
They averaged more than 17,000 in their debut season despite putting one of the worst teams in modern NHL history on the ice. But the franchise was essentially doomed when it was sold to a group known as Atlanta Spirit (what a malicious example of false advertising that was).
The new owners wanted only the Hawks and Phillips Arena. Almost immediately, they began trying to pawn off the Thrashers. Not surprisingly, no one was interested in acquiring a team that would have to rent an arena from an increasingly dysfunctional group. As the losses mounted, reportedly in the range of $130 million, Atlanta Spirit began looking for another way out. When the Winnipeg offer came along, there was no real attempt to keep the team in Atlanta.
Through all the turmoil, the Thrashers never ranked at the bottom of the NHL in attendance. In fact, the average from their gloomy final year would have beaten out three teams this season.
Many Thrashers fans are still upset about being ridiculed for a perceived lack of support after the team moved. And unlike the Flames, who retained their name and some sense of their Atlanta history after moving to Calgary (and were largely cheered by their former fans for winning the Stanley Cup in 1989), the Jets made a clean break with their past.
Johnson, the former Thrashers fan, recalls the vitriol when the move was announced. He said some Jets fans who trolled the Thrashers' message boards belittled Thrashers fans as "worthless" and said the team would now win the Stanley Cup in Winnipeg because that's where "real fans" were.
"They had no idea about the dysfunctional management," he said.
Atlanta deserves a third chance at making the NHL work, but that's not likely to happen.
As if closing the door on any chance of getting another team, Philips Arena is finishing up a $192.5 million renovation that will essentially make it a basketball-only facility.
No thought was given to accommodating hockey.
For those who still love the game in Atlanta, they'll have to make do with watching games on television and rooting for other teams.
Anybody but the Jets, that is.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
For more AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey
Updated May 18, 2018