ATLANTA – About 200 Atlanta Thrashers fans gathered on Saturday to tailgate outside Philips Arena for perhaps the final time.
With the Thrashers reportedly close to being sold and moving to Winnipeg, fans blamed the team’s ownership group, the Atlanta Spirit, for the club’s seemingly imminent departure next week.
The annual “select-a-seat” event, that the Thrashers debuted in 1999, is staged for current and potential season-ticket buyers to come and check out the seats, look at the ice and talk about the upcoming NHL draft.
Now the future is uncertain, at best.
“We’ve been lied to for six years,” Jenn Peters, 30, said while choking back tears as she flipped through a collection of ticket stubs. “It’s hard to watch as a fan because there’s nothing you can do but show up. You can voice your opinion and you can show up, but that’s all you can do.”
It hardly helped the mood that Harry the Hawk, the mascot of Atlanta’s NBA club that is also owned by the Atlanta Spirit, rode up on a scooter, hopped off and handed out some high-fives before stopping to put his mouth over the head of Zanna Huff, a bystander wearing a Thrashers jersey.
“Now he’s trying to eat my girlfriend’s head, which is disgusting,” said Bryce McNeil, a 33-year-old professor at Georgia State. “Having Harry the Hawk here—it’s not that I have anything against the Hawks, but it’s the Atlanta Spirit shoving their other asset in our face, which is just deplorable.”
Thrash, the hockey team’s mascot, didn’t make it out in the 30 C heat until three hours into the event, but no players or members of the front office were in attendance. On the Internet, atlantathrashers.com didn’t mention the gathering, but salespeople were inside the arena processing credit card orders.
Howard Baron, a 54-year-old CPA and investment adviser, blamed the Spirit for all that went wrong, but also held out hope while holding up a small sign that read, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Baron had just walked into the arena with his son, Michael, to buy four more season tickets and push his total to 16.
“This city will support a team,” Baron said. “You’ve just got to get rid of the management. It’s a very poorly run organization and what (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman said the other night was true—that it’s a funny way to show it by not buying tickets—but the problem is if you come and buy tickets you’re stuck with this ownership group forever. It’s a double-edged sword.”
It seemed appropriate that the team had no promotional presence at the “Gulch,” the local nickname for the poorly paved parking lot outside Philips Arena and the Georgia Dome.
This get-together was all about the fans and ownership’s betrayal, said Deborah Petersen, a 36-year-old massage therapist.
She and her husband, Joe, were engaged at a December 2006 game. Those were great days for the Thrashers, who were legitimate playoff contenders and had two compelling scorers in Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa.
“There it was on the scoreboard scroll, ‘Deborah, will you marry me?'” Petersen said. “We haven’t missed a game in six years. It’s a big deal to us.”
Blame also spread to the NHL and Bettman for seemingly being complicit in rushing the team’s sale and move. Around the parking lot, a Bob Dylan quote from the 1965 song, “Desolation Row,” was posted in several spots—”And here comes the blind commissioner. They’ve got him in a trance.”
“If this goes through, I can promise you I will never go to another hockey game or an NHL event as long as I live,” Peters said. “I won’t give them another dime of my money. They have not stood up for this team. They stand by and watch everything go down. If they hadn’t touched Phoenix (to keep the Coyotes from moving to Winnipeg), we wouldn’t be in this mess. They wouldn’t be rushing to sell to this group.”
It won’t be the first time for NHL ownership to betray Bill Sengstacken, a Thrashers season-ticket holder every season and a local marketing and branding executive. He was a Hartford Whalers fan when they moved to Carolina and became the Hurricanes.
The Thrashers’ potential move is more hurtful to Sengstacken, who oversees a fan group called Nasty Nest in the 300 section of Philips Arena. The group often travels together to support the team on the road.
“We’ve been like the redheaded stepchild of Atlanta sports,” Sengstacken said. “(The Atlanta Spirit puts) money into the Hawks, and I appreciate that for the basketball team, but hockey is a great game, too, and in this market in particular you’ve got to market.”