Second chapter of hockey in Atlanta coming to an end Staff

5/31/2011 9:23:29 AM

From 1972 to 1980, the Atlanta Flames owned the ice in Georgia, but when they relocated to Calgary, the city of Atlanta was left without professional hockey. That was until 1999, when a new era of hockey returned to Atlanta.

The team was given the name 'Thrashers' after the State Bird, the Brown Thrasher. But like any expansion franchise, they struggled to find success early on.

With their first-ever pick in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, the Thrashers selected centre Patrik Stefan of the IHL's Long Beach Ice Dogs first overall. "It's very important to have patience," Thrashers general manager Don Waddell said at the time. "We're not worried about Patrik Stefan this year or next year. We're worried about Patrik Stefan five years from now."

Tabbed as a future front-line playmaker, Stefan never tallied more than 40 points in a season with Atlanta. And hindsight added some salt to the wound as the next two picks in the draft that year were Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

Led by veterans like captain Kelly Buchberger and TSN's own Ray Ferraro and young skaters like Andrew Brunette and Yannick Tremblay, it took the team three years to break the 30-win mark in a season.

But in that time, they also continued to add talent through the draft with the likes of Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk.

Heatley outdueled Kovalchuk during a memorable 2001-02 season earning the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year. Both young stars were named to the NHL's All-Rookie Team that season and appeared to be cornerstones of the Thrashers franchise.

Unfortunately, the success the Thrashers hoped for didn't arrive and despite Kovalchuk and Heatley developing into two of the league's top scorers, Atlanta failed to reach the post-season in its first six seasons.

The end of the NHL lockout in 2005 saw another headline maker as Heatley - who requested a trade - was sent to the Ottawa Senators for star forward Marian Hossa and veteran defenceman Greg de Vries.

"We traded apples for apples, in my opinion, as far as the age," Waddell said of Hossa and Heatley on the day of the trade. "And right now, I think Marian Hossa fits our needs extremely well."

Hossa became the first Thrasher to reach the 100-point mark as he ended the 2006-07 season with 43 goals and 57 assists, helping Atlanta win the Southeast Division and earn the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

But in their first playoff appearance, the Thrashers looked like they were the part of post-season freshmen as they were on the losing end of a four-game sweep at the hands of the New York Rangers.

The brief showing has proved to be the Thrashers only post-season experience in the franchise's 10-year existence.

In 2008, Atlanta was awarded the NHL All-Star game at Philips Arena - an event highlighted by a game-winning goal from former Thrasher Marc Savard, giving the Eastern Conference an 8-7 victory.

In recent years, the Thrashers continued to be a perennial draft lottery team, unable to make the leap to the next level. When they were unable to get Kovalchuk to sign a long-term contract, they moved the franchise's all-time leading scorer to the New Jersey Devils in an attempt to re-stock their roster with young talent.

"Our goal from the start of this negotiating process was to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a long-term contract," explained Waddell. "During the process, Kovy affirmed his desire to be a Thrasher for life. We've spent several months exploring scenarios with Kovy and his agent to reach a mutually beneficial agreement, and offered many lucrative packages in an attempt to meet his financial objectives. Unfortunately, we've reached an impasse and at this point he has declined all of our proposals and we can't reasonably go any higher."

Thanks to the Kovalchuk trade, as well as a more recent deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Thrashers were an improved club in 2010-11 - finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference and five points of out a playoff spot.

But with financial losses and low attendance plaguing the franchise, Thrashers ownership had been looking to sell the team, ideally to a local buyer. Behind the scenes, the NHL was trying to help as much as possible in looking for a suitor that would keep the team in Georgia.

However, with Winnipeg's True North eager to get a deal done as soon as possible and Thrashers ownership urgently trying to sell the team, all signs pointed to a deal that saw NHL hockey leave The Peach State for the second time.