Whose fault was it? That is the question that I keep asking myself. I was a fan of the Atlanta Thrashers. I went to over a game a year and felt horrible that I couldn’t afford more. When I didn’t go to the game, I saw most of their games on TV. I bought way too much gear for my beloved hockey team. I really want to know … whose fault was it?
I have narrowed down the suspects list to three, and only three: Don Waddell, the fans, and the Atlanta Spirit, LLC.
Suspect No. 1 Don Waddell: Waddell was an assistant manager for the Detriot Red Wings from 1997-98 when they won the Stanley Cup. To be the best you have to steal from the best so Ted Turner and his original ownership group handpicked Waddell to hold down the reins as General Manager of this new team.
How good was Don Waddell? His first pick (Patrik Stefan) was named the worst No. 1 pick ever in the NHL Entry Draft by NHL.com. His second pick (Luke Sellers, 30th overall) played exactly 3:27 of hockey on the NHL level in 2002 and was never heard from again. So the first two selections for the Atlanta Thrashers were two of the biggest busts in NHL history.
Waddell put a team together over 11 years that finished with 342 wins, 437 losses, 45 ties, and 78 overtime losses. That means in 11 seasons, Waddell’s hand-selected teams finished on the losing side 173 more times than they won. They finished fourth or fifth in their five-team division six out of 11. They reached the playoffs one time but failed to pick up a single victory even though they were the favorite.
Suspect No.2 the fans: No matter how hard we try, we forget sometimes that sports are big businesses. If nobody is coming to games and spending money, then the business has to take drastic actions that could include leaving. Not including the first year of the franchise, the Thrashers never averaged greater than 16,240 fans per game and averaged fewer than 15,000 fans in attendance for five seasons including the final three seasons. During its entire tenure in Atlanta, the Thrashers averaged 14,914 fans per game. Those are not numbers that can keep a team viable.
Suspect No. 3 Atlanta Spirit: Whenever I think of the Atlanta Spirit ownership group, I’m always reminded of the Simpsons episode “Three Men and a Comic Book.” Bart, Milhouse, and Martin combine their money to purchase a rare copy of a Radioactive Man comic. The three children fight over every trivial detail regarding the book and in the end the comic book is destroyed.
But in real life, it is nine people – Steven Belkin, Michael Gearon Jr., Bruce Levenson, Ed Peskowitz, J. Rutherford Seydel, II, Todd Foreman, J. Michael Gearon Sr., Bud Seretean, and Beau Turner – divided over three cities – Atlanta, Boston, and Washington D.C. – that bought my beloved Thrashers on March 31, 2004 with a contract that was so thick and complex, it required six binders and 372 signatures.
The honeymoon period lasted just over a year as in 2005, the Atlanta Hawks wanted to make a trade to obtain guard Joe Johnson. The majority of the Atlanta Spirit group wanted to make it but Belkin, who was named the Hawks Governor and therefore owned a controlling vote, rejected it. Lawyers were called in and it took five years before the group ousted Belkin with a buyout on Dec. 23, 2010. Five months later on May 31, the Atlanta Spirit sold the Thrashers to True North Sports and Entertainment and the rest was history.
I’m acquitting Waddell of all charges levied against him. Despite being horrible at his job, he did the best he could and he should not be blamed for not firing himself.
The fans did have a part in the death whether we are willing to admit it or not. When comparing performance ranking to attendance rankings, the fans were not showing up in equal proportions over the past three years. If more fans had come out (even as few as 400 per game) then the Thrashers would probably still be here. But with that said, they’re only an accomplice. They did not tally the fatal blow.
The Atlanta Spirit group is the ultimate killer. The owners were never willing to put the money behind the Thrashers that was needed or to make the hard decisions that were required to own a franchise. The group were so incompetent they made Larry, Moe, and Curly look like doctors.