Conflicted Thrashers fans try to get closure

NASHVILLE — Daniel Bassett was a picture in conflict.

That didn’t make him much different from most of the other hundreds of fans of the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers who attended Saturday’s game at Bridgestone Arena to see their former team, now the Winnipeg Jets, play the Predators.

They wore their old garb and they were happy to see the players they once cheered on, but they wanted the team to lose.

“I love the players, hate the team,” said Bassett, of Morningside, a former Thrashers season ticket holder, as his 5-year-old son Evan chased bubbles around the plaza in front of the arena before the game.

Evan wore a T-shirt with Ilya Kovalchuk’s name and No. 17 on the back and an autographed Thrashers baseball cap. Asked whose signature it bore, Evan responded enthusiastically, “Z-Bog!” – Zach Bogosian.

Daniel said he waited a month until after the news of the move was made official on May 31 of last year before he explained to Evan why the team was moving. He said Evan still doesn’t understand.

Joe Hennenfent of Acworth came with a group of 16 and said, “We’re cheering for the players. I can’t say we are for the Jets.”

Saturday represented the closest regular season game that the Jets would play to Atlanta – less than 250 miles away from their former Philips Arena home – since the move and plenty of fans took advantage. Sixteen of the 20 players who suited up for the Jets on Saturday played for the Thrashers last season.

Before the game, Jets forward Jim Slater, the longest current tenured member of the organization, having spent six seasons in Atlanta, said he heard that numerous buses were headed northwest along Interstates 75 and 24 for the game. He was asked how he would feel about seeing them.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Slater said. “I don’t think it was ever really the fans that were the problem in Atlanta. The fans were great. They were loud, they traveled on the road with us. They’re really passionate about the game and they gave pretty much everything they had every night and that’s definitely a positive memory from Atlanta.”

As an organization, the Predators have attempted to recruit Thrashers fans from the market of 5 million people. Roughly half of the Preds’ games are broadcast in the Atlanta market on Fox Sports South or SportSouth. In addition, the Preds offered “Thrash to Smash” – playing off Nashville’s “Smashville” marketing campaign – ticket packages.

They are six-game packages that included both the regular season and preseason games with the Jets and also a game with the Calgary Flames, the other NHL franchise to leave Atlanta.

Sean Henry, the Predators’ president/chief operating officer, said they sold between 250 and 300 of them. Henry said before the season the Preds held a reception for former Thrashers fans, which helped to gauge their moods.

At one point during a timeout during Saturday’s game, the Preds played a humorous video on the large television screens attached to the scoreboard that hangs from center ice. It started with a disconsolate Thrashers fan, moping on her couch, watching old images of the franchise on television while the song “Everbody Hurts” by Georgia-based R.E.M. played. Then the doorbell rang and Predators’ mascot Gnash appeared with a present. It was a Predators’ jersey and the former Thrashers fan enthusiastically accepted. The music changed to R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People.”

Henry joked at first that it was not a skit but “reality TV.” In fact, the conversion could start becoming reality. Since Atlanta and Nashville were in different conferences, they didn’t play often and didn’t work up much of a rivalry, unlike Carolina and Atlanta, which competed in the same division.

Dennis Wells of Birmingham, Ala., about two hours’ drive from Atlanta and three from Nashville, said he attended about 15 Thrashers games per season. He said going to Saturday’s game was “almost like closure” for him and that that night would probably represent the last time he wore his Thrashers’ garb.

In an email on Sunday, Wells said he saw most of the Thrashers fans cheering for the Predators.

“We had a fantastic time, and if there was any doubt about our loyalties going in, there is no doubt now — we were all pulling for the Predators 100%,” he wrote, “and I was actually disappointed and nervous when (Winnipeg’s) Stapleton scored (to cut the lead to 2-1; Nashville won 3-1). Very strange, and also a little sad.”

That feeling of sadness was echoed by other Thrashers fans. There also was bitterness. As if to underscore those sentiments, the arena’s TV scoreboard screens showed one sign that read, “Preds, Avenge Atlanta” and another that showed fans wearing Thrashers’ attire with a sign that said simply, “Go Preds.”

The game was Nashville’s 22nd sellout this season, a franchise record, and Henry said that the Preds would finish with 25, up from 16 last season and four the season before that.

“The good thing that came out of this for us is we now get to pull for a winning team and get to go to a building with a GREAT hockey atmosphere,” Wells wrote. “It has to be one of the best game day atmospheres in the league.”

Ever the salesman, Henry said, “If you’re not converted after Saturday’s or last night’s game (a 6-1 win over Chicago), which, I think, was also broadcast in Atlanta, you’re never going to convert. It was a lot of fun.”

Henry was sensitive to the fact that the market lost its team and recognized that just a few years ago Nashville went through some rocky times in terms of its own ownership. Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie had attempted to purchase the team and move it to Hamilton.

Henry noted that with 5:05 left in regulation of Saturday’s game and then again after the final buzzer sounded, some Thrashers fans threw their gear onto the ice. He wondered what the motivation might have been.

Judging from the fans’ sentiments, it might have been one final protest — a sign that they had no need or intention to wear it ever again.