On May 30th, 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers broke the hearts of their fans by announcing that the franchise had been sold to a new ownership group who plan on moving the team to Winnipeg for the 2011-2012 NHL season. The sale leaves players in the Atlanta area wondering what will happen to the sport they have grown to love over the past decade.
The Atlanta Junior Knights have benefited greatly from having a local pro team. Founded in 2007, 8 years after the arrival of the Thrashers, the team pulls nearly a quarter of its overall roster from the local area. The team has had tremendous success in the SEJHL, winning the league's championship three years in a row and finishing first in the standing this past season. The squad has also experienced success in the MJHL, finishing with the most wins in the MJHL Southern division in 2010 and 2011. The Empire Selects Southern Division team has seen success as well. In fact, it seems like the achievements of the Junior team overshadowed that of the professional team. So with the Thrashers abandoning the region, how do people think the Knights will fair?
I spoke to Atlanta Knights Empire Selects coach Steven Savor about the possible effect this move might have on the local hockey scene. "It is disheartening to have the Thrashers moving out of Atlanta. The coaches and I here at the Knights have had a few discussions about the matter, and we think that the impact of the move could be significant. I do not believe that the move will affect the kids that are above the age of 11, but the place we will see the most impact is the younger ones, ages 5 to 10. Having the Thrashers organization here helped introduce many young children, boys and girls, to the sport of hockey, and with their absence it
will be left up to the local rinks and coaches to get young players interested."
Coach Savor brings up a good point. There is no denying that a professional hockey team in the area influences young kids to pick up a stick. Unlike the north, the south doesn't have hockey as part of its usual sport culture. Having professional teams move south brought a new generation of players to the game lured by the shine of the professional level. With a major professional team leaving, it is unknown if hockey will stick around in Atlanta.
Mike McMahon, a 2008 graduate of Temple University's Sports Management program, offered a different opinion on the issue. "While theThrashers leaving Atlanta won't have a positive effect on hockey programs, I don't think it will have a negative one. Atlanta
isn't really a traditional hockey market so the people who still like hockey will find a way to get involved. Coaches will have to reach into the community more, but I don't think this will be too devastating." said McMahon, who worked as a director of hockey operations at a Pennsylvania skating rink, and now manages a sporting goods store in New Jersey. He says that the success of the Junior Knights will continue as long as the coaches continue to recruit the right players.
Hockey in the south got a huge boost in popularity with the arrival of several professional teams to the area. The 1990s saw five teams arrive in southeastern cities either by expansion or relocation. As a result, more young athletes gained exposure to the game and hockey became one of the south's fastest growing sports. Several Junior programs popped up to tap into this new market, although none have been as successful as the Knights. Without a professional team to attract new players, it will be interesting to see if the Knights continue their dominance in the future.
Atlanta hockey fans will still have a few opportunities to see the sport they love. The Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL play out of Duluth Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. The SPHL, a low tier professional league catering exclusively to the southern states, fields two teams in Georgia. The Nashville Predators, once a rival of the Thrashers, are about 4 hours away and are one of the up and coming elite teams in the NHL. As for the Junior Knights, they will continue operating both their Elite and Selects programs for the 2011-2012 season. They have high hopes for future success. Only time will tell how the Thrashers exit will affect this already storied franchise.
Derek Smith is currently a junior English/Creative Writing major at Widener University and an intern feature writer for americanjuniorhockey.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.