NHL

Hockey's second divorce from Atlanta leaves behind jilted fans - and creates exciting opportunities

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ATLANTA (STATS) - Though it's been more than three decades, Joe Watkins still bleeds red.

Atlanta Flames red, to be precise.

Watkins is president - for life, he proudly points out - of the Atlanta Flames Fan Club, a group of 14 destined to keep the memory of the of the NHL's first foray into the southern United States alive.

A Dallas native, Watkins discovered hockey on national television in the 1970s during a lull between NFL, college football and college basketball games.

His wife, Betsy, is originally from Philadelphia, but wasn't exposed to hockey until she moved to the south and met friends who were season-ticket holders. She's long been impressed with the speed, agility and determination of the players, but there's one other facet of the game she enjoys.

"You can't run out of bounds," she said.

In 1980, the Flames were sold and moved to Calgary, Alberta. In June, it was deja vu all over again as the Atlanta Thrashers were sold and moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

"Maybe they thought someone would step up and buy the team," Joe said.

No one came forward to make even a last-ditch attempt.

Over the last 35 years, nine NHL franchises have relocated. Atlanta, though, is the only city to lose a team twice.

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In 1971, the NHL awarded a franchise to Atlanta to begin play the following year with the New York Islanders.

New York City had long been a hockey hotbed with the Rangers and Americans, who folded after World War II. Putting a team in the rapidly expanding Long Island suburbs to occupy a new arena while keeping a maverick league at bay was a no-brainer.

Atlanta, though, was a bit of an odd choice for a pro hockey team, despite the fact the league had taken chances in nontraditional markets. When the NHL grew from the "Original Six" to 12 teams in 1967, the West Coast was represented for the first time in Los Angeles and Oakland.

Playing in the brand-new Omni, the Flames forged a 1-1 tie with Buffalo in their home debut on Oct. 14, 1972, helping start a successful season by an expansion club's standards.

Behind names like Robby Leiter and Larry Romanchych, Atlanta managed 25 wins and 15 ties in 78 games. That was good for seventh in the West Division, a stunning 17 points ahead of the last-place California Golden Seals.

Though the Flames never hoisted a Stanley Cup while in Hotlanta, they became impressively consistent. From 1976-80, Atlanta finished with between 80 and 90 points, and reached the playoffs each season.

The club was equally predictable in the postseason - but for all the wrong reasons. Atlanta recorded five straight opening-round defeats while compiling a 2-11 record.

By 1980, attendance was falling and the Flames were losing prime home dates to the NBA's Hawks. The club was quickly sold for $16 million and moved nearly 2,400 miles northwest to the Canadian Rockies.

"It was sort of like losing a member of your family," Watkins said. "You put blood, sweat and tears in them."

To their credit, the Calgary Flames remember their roots. Assistant captains wear a miniature Atlanta logo on their jerseys in place of the standard "A."

Calgarians also got one thing Atlanta never had - a Stanley Cup celebration. Less than a decade after resettling, the Flames won their only title by stunning the vaunted Canadiens in 1989 at the Montreal Forum.

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The 1990s saw nine expansion hockey clubs, including two in Florida and three in other southern locales, established to help grow the sport.

Atlanta was back on the NHL map.

Fresh off hosting the Summer Olympics the previous year, the city was given a team in 1997 to start play two seasons later.

"It was great," recalled Betsy Watkins. "We were energized. There was a whole big jersey ceremony in Centennial Park. We were jazzed."

But she was also a realist: "We knew they weren't going to have a good team the first season."

The Watkinses were season-ticket holders for that inaugural 1999-00 campaign, in which the Thrashers managed just 39 points. Still, they ranked 11th in home attendance at just over 17,200 per game - about 1,350 short of capacity. They proved to be a better draw that season than Original Six clubs Boston and Chicago, and faded dynasties in Edmonton and Long Island.

But the honeymoon didn't last. Though the Thrashers lasted longer than their predecessors, not many in Atlanta bothered to watch after the glow of the new team wore off.

They failed to finish higher than 21st in home attendance and saw more and more fans stay away each season after their only playoff appearance in 2007; fittingly, a first-round sweep. Last season, the team fell to 28th out of 30 NHL teams with an average attendance of less than 13,500. By comparison, the top-ranked Blackhawks drew almost 21,500 per game.

Poor drafting didn't help matters either. Patrik Stefan, picked first overall in 1999, was a bust. Kari Lehtonen never lived up to being the second selection in 2002 and was shipped to Dallas in 2010.

Budding superstar Dany Heatley never recovered from the car accident that killed teammate Dan Snyder, and Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa weren't given much to work with and eventually headed elsewhere.

Watkins blames Atlanta Spirit, LLC. The ownership group that bought the Thrashers, Hawks and Philips Arena in 2004, was beset by infighting resulting in a high-profile lawsuit and the buyout of a top-ranking member.

"When Atlanta Spirit came in, we never got the sense that they wanted to make the team work in Atlanta," she said, adding that rumors of the team's demise began almost immediately after they took over.

Rumors became facts last month when the club was sold for $170 million, including a $60 million relocation fee.

Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed issued a one-paragraph statement regarding the "excitement and competitive spirit (the Thrashers) brought to the city."

Essentially, thank you and good-bye.

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Fans in Canada's heartland know the heartbreak of a team leaving. Winnipeg lost the Jets in 1996 when they moved to the desert, resurfacing as the Phoenix Coyotes.

Peter Aiello, now a Winnipeg pharmacist, was 18 when that happened.

"The last two years of the Jets was a very sad period," he said. "The various rallies had all ages turn out, and I can recall a lot of sad, crying faces mixed in with the fans cheering "Go Jets Go!" and singing "O, Canada."

There was always a belief, perhaps a romantic notion, that with the Coyotes' struggles to gain a foothold among fans and their inability to secure stable ownership, they would one day return home.

Instead, Winnipeggers this fall will watch the new Jets, a team with limited talent in former Stanley Cup winners Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, and budding stars Evander Kane and Tobias Enstrom.

They'll also guarantee sellout crowds for years to come, quelling another belief that Winnipeg is too small-market.

Manitoba's entire population is roughly 1.24 million, compared to 5.72 million in Atlanta's metropolitan region. However, all 13,000 season tickets with commitments ranging from three to five years were quickly sold.

"I have never seen such excitement, and the fanfare far exceeds what I thought it would be," said Aiello, himself a new season-ticket holder.

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For Eric Fehr, taking the next step of his NHL career in Winnipeg, rather than Atlanta, represents more than an unexpected surprise.

It's also a chance to play closer to home.

Fehr was born and raised in Winkler, about 80 miles southwest of the Jets' new home, the MTS Centre. He stayed in the province to play junior hockey in Brandon, where he was a two-time 50-goal scorer with the Wheat Kings before being drafted 18th overall by the Capitals in 2003.

Fehr's best NHL season came in 2009-10, when he scored 21 goals in 69 games for the Presidents Trophy winners. However, on a team with star Alexander Semin and steady veteran Mike Knuble entrenched at right wing, combined with Fehr's injury history, Washington appeared to have little use for him.

He found out about a trade to Winnipeg between holes of a charity golf event on July 8 in his hometown. Originally caught off-guard, Fehr's surprise has quickly been replaced with excitement.

"With the whole team coming back now, family and friends were saying how cool it would be to come play in Winnipeg, and you don't think it's going to be a possibility, and all of a sudden it's happened," he said. "My world has been kind of flipped upside down now."

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While the NHL will be back in the 'Peg this fall, Joe and Betsy Watkins will have to be content traveling some 30 miles from their home in Avondale Estates, Ga., to get their fix with the Gwinnett Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League, the sport's answer to Double-A baseball.

"Any hockey is better than no hockey," he explained.

Joe will continue to watch the NHL, but don't expect him to be a fan of the new Jets. Though he's president-for-life of the Atlanta Flames fan club, he also turned his back on what they became.

"It's the Calgary Flames, not the Atlanta Flames," he said with a touch of defiance in his voice. "It's your team, not my team."

That doesn't mean he's given up on the league again coming back to the Peachtree City.

"When Winnipeg flames out, we might get them back, or when (Phoenix) flames out," he said. "Somebody will buy them."

Somebody? Perhaps. Somebody from Atlanta? Unlikely.

Until then, however, Watkins can help keep the memory of two NHL teams alive.

---

Andy Lefkowitz is a writer for STATS LLC. He can be reached at alefkowitzstats.com

Tagged: Flames, Capitals, Jets, Eric Fehr

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