The last stand ended up looking a whole lot like an ambush.
In the heart of downtown Atlanta, within sight of Philips Arena and within earshot of Centennial Olympic Park, there stands a desolate patch of cracked asphalt bounded on all sides by overpasses and rail lines. It's called The Gulch, and it's every bit as forlorn as its name implies. Near-overflowing dumpsters, faded parking lot lines, tipped-over shopping carts, an on-your-honor parking meter box that nobody pays -– it's the kind of place no one would go if they had a choice. Which made it a painfully perfect visual metaphor for what likely will be the final celebration of pro hockey in Atlanta.
Saturday at The Gulch, a good sports bar's worth of Thrashers fans rallied to support their team even as report after report suggested that the team already had one skate blade in Winnipeg. They fired themselves up with chants ("Let's-stay, Thrash-ers!") and endless varieties of homemade signs ("Deport the Atlanta Spirit for murdering hockey in Atlanta!") as indifferent traffic drove past and train horns echoed off surrounding bridges.
Futile? Yep. Disappointing, attendance-wise? Yep. But also a testament to how much fans can care for a team that, by their own account, cares so little for them. If you think that's pathetic, well ... you've never really had your heart broken, have you?
Some background: The Atlanta Spirit owns both the Thrashers and the Hawks ... and that's about all the ownership team can agree on. Infighting among the owners has raised the concern of everyone from fans to free agents to NBA commissioner David Stern, and the ever-spiraling costs of running two franchises have forced the Spirit's hand. Someone had to go, and that someone was the hockey team.
Assuming they do in fact leave, the Thrashers are the most notable in the string of high-profile sports events packing up and leaving town; the PGA Tour's BellSouth Classic ended four-plus decades in the city in 2008, and Atlanta lost its spring NASCAR race this year. But both those events have replacements or equivalents still in place in the city; the Thrashers' departure takes Atlanta out of the league of four-team sports cities, probably for good. (For those old enough to remember, the Calgary Flames were once Atlanta's team, back in the '70s.)
The conventional wisdom holds that Atlanta fans are to blame -- Atlanta fans who couldn't get themselves to the games and support their team. Believable enough, right? Atlanta fans have a well-documented history of trouble finding their seats, though they have plenty of good and reasonable explanations as to why: The arenas are located far from most of the population, and you have to brave zombie-apocalypse-level traffic snarls to get to them. The high transplant population cheers plenty loudly for their own teams when they come to town.
Just for a moment, though, let's not lay all the blame at the feet of dilettante Atlanta fans. Let's take a step back and look at a bigger picture, one that requires a bit more thought than a blog post comment or a sports-radio call-in. Think about this question:
How long should fans be expected to put up with a crappy product?
Because let's call the Thrashers' term in Atlanta what it truly is (or was): On the whole, a crappy product. Eleven seasons, one postseason appearance, zero playoff games won? Since their lone playoff run in 2007, all of Atlanta's other teams -– Braves, Falcons, Hawks, even the WNBA's Dream -– have reached the postseason at least once. Come on, in what other industry is that level of institutional failure acceptable?
Certainly, there were moments; the Thrashers won the Southeast Division in 2007 behind some of the NHL's most exciting players. And there are teams and fans which suffer through longer streaks of futility. Some fans stand by their team, hell or high water, win big or lose for a decade.
"It's disappointing and frustrating that the city of Atlanta didn't step up and put its money where its mouth is when we're talking about buying tickets," PGA Tour golfer and noted Thrasher fan Stewart Cink said on a radio show last week. "That's what's disappointing the most to me is that we go down there and bust our butt to get down there for the start of the game and more then half the crowd isn't even there till near the end of the first period. What does that tell the team? Are they going to play hard every night for fans that don't even show up till there's five minutes left in the first period?"
That's a fair point, but that's also the same old "throw me the idol, I'll throw you the whip" routine that sports teams have played on their fans for years. Why is it the fans' obligation to put up with a substandard product year after disappointing year?
Sports teams struggling with attendance issues love to play the "loyalty" card, working the emotional angle with all the subtlety of a Lifetime movie villain. If you loved us, you'd come see us, the line goes. If we leave, it's your fault.
It's a compelling pitch. After all, we connect with our teams on a level beyond simple commerce; you don't see many sane people touting the virtures of their favorite soft drink or sandwich or phone company.
But it's also a pitch that's cynical beyond measure. The fans are the easy scapegoats in the team-departure scenario, and Atlanta fans, with their less-than-sterling history of team support, make for the easiest marks of all. (Old joke: Guy calls the Braves stadium and asks what time the game starts. Operator says, "What time can you get here?")
Put it this way. Say there's a local pizza joint near you where surly waitresses serve warm beer and doughy slices, night after night, year after year. Oh, sure, every so often you'll get a decent pie, but by and large you can get better food out of a gas-station microwave. When this joint closes up shop and puts up signs saying, "Thanks for not showing up, jerks! It's your fault I'm gone!", are you going to feel sorry for the owners? Of course not. Those clowns should've made better pizza.
Obviously, not every team is going to win every year, or even every few years. But if a team can't compete on the ice, the owners must step up in other areas. At the rally, Thrashers fans bemoaned how little the team has done to reach out to the community, noting that teams in other markets host frequent training camps, autograph sessions, season ticketholder events, and other ways to keep the team connected to its city.
The Spirit never seemed to see that kind of outreach as a necessity. With a pronounced focus on basketball, the ownership banked on always having the undying support of hardcore hockey fans, and judging from the sweater-heavy crowd at The Gulch, you can see the reason for that. Hockey, like NASCAR and college football, isn't a spectator sport; it's an entire lifestyle ... if you can find a way in.
"When Atlanta was awarded the Thrashers franchise, almost overnight, there were hockey rinks built in Atlanta, most notably in northern Atlanta," says Thrashers fan Scott Barber. "The city went from having no programs of any substance to having at least four separate hockey programs for our kids to play ... [including] a national program of AAA players started by Tom Glavine at the Ice Cooler in Alpharetta."
"I blame [the Hawks'] Joe Johnson," says Tim Fabiniak, a writer for the sports blog Birdwatchers Anonymous, who looks exactly like you'd expect a hockey fan to look: bearded and genial. "When the Johnson deal happened, the ownership group split [on the wisdom of signing Johnson to a huge contract] ... the guys who ran the basketball side killed the hockey side."
Late in the rally, with the heat taking its toll on the sweater-wearing ralliers, the Thrashers' mascot showed up driving a tricycle-sized four-wheeler. Thrash led the dwindling crowd in some drum-pounding and posed for pictures with the remaining faithful.
It was painful to watch. The fans had spent years of their lives and thousands of dollars supporting their team, and they got a mascot riding a toy? Unbelievable. The city of Atlanta may or may not "deserve" hockey, but its most devoted hockey fans certainly deserved to be treated better than this.
-- Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter @jaybusbee.
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