Atlanta Thrashers

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In 1999, I went to my first Thrashers game.  It was something new and exciting, and it rekindled an interest in the sport that had surfaced only once before, the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.”  I’ve tried taking my wife and my son, neither of whom particularly enjoy sports, and walked away accepting that hockey, or, indeed, the unscripted intrigue of athletic competition, meant beans to them.

But then there’s my daughter who has been my reliable  sports buddy, a discernible sign that God listens and answers prayers, at least for the most important sport (football) and hockey (if seen live).  And then there’s my substitute son, Paco-Frankie –Patrick, who I recruited to the fold.  And then there’s his dad, Tom.  And that, folks, equals a Chik-fil-A 4-ticket combo package for a game at Philips Arena.

We’ve suffered a lot at Thrashers games through the years.  They’re currently in their 11th year of a five year plan to be a playoff hockey team.  Sure, the General Manager would point out that they made the playoffs once, but an 0-4 record that one year hardly qualifies as the Promised Land.  Yet, he keeps his job.

In short, they’ve had some very good players over the years, but they’ve never had a great team, or even a very good team, or even a consistently entertaining team.  As soon as you see a good game, beware the next as your hopes may be massacred.  Hockey tickets aren’t cheap, and it’s difficult to pay $ for a history of general ineptitude (plus more than a little bad luck).

So, after all these years, I finally got smart.  Instead of suffering through the trials and tribulations of following the team through a (very lengthy) full season, why not risk all my hopes and expectations on one single game?  If they play well, it’s a great memory!  If they lose, then there’s always next year.  And, after all, the hockey experience is at least worth one outing a year, just ask all the Atlanta fans who go just that often.  Why didn’t anyone tell me?

Philips Arena is a great venue for sports.  Though now aging as it enters its second decade, it still dazzles the uninitiated.  Hockey notwithstanding, views from most seats rate at least “good,” the video panel circling the arena is flashy, the vertical wall of corporate (translated: half empty) seats and boxes is as awesome as it is awkward, suspended Thrasher heads bellow flame that can be felt from the seats when goals are scored, the score board videos are often entertaining, there’s plenty of silly competitions during the timeouts, the Thrash mascot works hard at creating enthusiasm (though he doesn’t have great aim; he has yet to shoot a T-shirt my way), the food is…   Well, wait.  I guess I’m done.  Don’t let me fool you.  The food is generic, awful, and expensive.  But you don’t have to eat there.  And, we didn’t.

Philips Arena

For our “one game is the season outing,” the Thrashers played the dreaded Philadelphia Flyers, who for the past 10 years have more or less owned the Thrashers, until this year (Thrashers 4-0 at the time of this writing).  Still, the Thrashers, now literally without any superstar talent, happen to play well (other than on those nights when they don’t), and after losing 6 games in a Thrash rallying the fansrow to fall from playoff contention, then winning their most recent two, would it be Jekyll or Hyde this night?

What we saw was an action packed (translated: fist fight in the first 30 seconds) game, two fist fights by the time it was 1-0 Thrashers, and perhaps 5 fights by the time the Thrashers won 5-2. 

And, that is a change this year.  In the past, there haven’t been many fights.  Sure, the fights are stupid and players rarely connect before sliding to the ice, but it is, in a way, a measure of their spiritedness in the game – something lacking for years.   There were other changes as well, such as no heart stopping defensive lapses, almost defying what it means to be a Thrashers’ defenseman.  “Rabid Fan,” a long time glass banger, was nowhere to be seen, nor were Braveheart or two aging long haired rockers that would drain their beers on command.  When you become a hockey fan, you get to know the crowd.  Something new, though.  Now the Star Wars “Empire Theme” now plays when a number of fans don their Storm Trooper helmets.  Go figure.  But amidst the families, drunks, business movers, and light and diehard fans, that’s hockey.  Oh, and amidst the hundreds of fans pulling for the visiting team, the second most telling aspect that the Thrashers haven’t played to a level to sustain a fan base (the first being the empty seats).

One thing has remained the same:  The KissCam, spotlighting couples around the rink that must kiss on the video board, usually awkwardly, before the camera will move on.  This series always closes on a couple of male losers sporting jerseys from the other team.  Best though, is a fine elderly couple who seem to have attended almost every game I’ve Thrasherfansseen, kissing in a confidant and elegant style.  Kudos.  And the crowd applauds, because, as I’ve said, hockey fans know their crowd.

But change is in the air, and not just the rumored “For Sale” sign dangling from the absentee owner’s Rolls Royces.  Depending on where my sports buddy daughter chooses to go to college, opportunities to go to Thrasher games may be very limited going forward, but this, at least, was a winning trip to mark the passing of an era.

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