Thrashers Look for Smoother Ice; Hockey Team Hopes Future Polishes Its Public Image

Article excerpt

Byline: Brian Basinger, Times-Union staff writer

ATLANTA -- In the city that rose from the ashes of the Civil War, the Atlanta Thrashers are following the lead of Scarlet O'Hara and focusing on the future, instead of their dismal past.

Since the National Hockey League team's inaugural game in 1999, the Thrashers have finished twice in last place, and now find themselves on familiar ground at the bottom of their division.

Average attendance has gone down every year.

But players, as well as their die-hard supporters, aren't yet ready to surrender.

Management fired coach Curt Fraser in December, and brought in Bob Hartley, who led the Colorado Avalanche to the 2001 Stanley Cup.

Now, the factory worker-turned-hockey coach and his new team have nowhere to go but up.

"I really believe this organization offers me the challenge I need," Hartley said at the Jan. 14 news conference announcing his hiring. "I know I'm joining some quality people. These young guys sitting in the locker room, they will be attractions."

Something to boost ticket sales is exactly what the team hopes to find.

Hockey enthusiasts, now accustomed to the Thrashers' frequent losses, have filled an average of less than 70 percent of the seats in Philips Arena so far this season.

By contrast, attendance surpassed 90 percent during the Thrashers' first season.

"We've lost a few fans here lately," Thrashers forward Jeff Odgers said. "I'll tell you, it's a lot more fun playing in a full building than a half-full building. We've got to give them a reason to come back."

For Hartley's part, he has gotten off on the right foot by guiding the team to a record of 5-1-1 since his arrival.

However, it will take much more than two good weeks to overcome 3 1/2 years of underperformance and a tarnished public image.

"You don't spend the kind of money you do on season tickets to go out and watch a loser," said Mike Betran, a 26-year-old Atlanta resident who grew up worshiping the Detroit Red Wings. "It's very hard to cheer for a team in last place."

Atlanta isn't the only NHL team below the Mason-Dixon line to see attendance go down. Florida, Nashville and Washington have all seen a decline in ticket sales.

DAUNTING CHALLENGE

But economists say Atlanta's challenge is more daunting than other cities when it comes to selling professional hockey in the South.

Georgia's capital city is already home to pro baseball (the Braves), football (the Falcons) and basketball (the Hawks).

"You've also got the problem in Atlanta that hockey is basically a Northern sport," said Melvin Crask, a professor of marketing strategy at the University of Georgia. "If the team is not winning that much, if I don't know much about the sport and I don't care about it anyway, I'm not going to get involved because there are lots of other things to do."

However, large numbers of Northerners moving to the South for job opportunities have created a viable hockey market, said Ken Lehner, vice president of marketing and communications for the Carolina Hurricanes.

"It's surprising how many minor league hockey teams there are in North and South Carolina," said Lehner, whose team came to Raleigh, N.C., in 1997. "That obviously helped that there was sort of a foundation."

Lehner says the real challenge is convincing both Northerners and Southerners to cheer for a team that is only a few years old.

"The greatest form of marketing is having a winning team on the ice," he said. "That will convert those jerseys quicker than anything."

Another way teams are putting down roots is by throwing promotional dollars behind their star athletes.

Thrasher forward Dany Heatley takes to the ice Sunday at Office Depot Center in suburban Fort Lauderdale as the only member of his team to make the NHL All-Star Game. …