As sure as sweet tea and pecan pie are staples of down-home cuisine, nothing ignites the passion of a Southern sports fan like football.
Still, there is a small but devoted segment of hockey enthusiasts who have long believed that the speed and physical nature of their favorite sport has all the necessary ingredients to catch on below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Those qualities of the sport, coupled with a fan base consisting of a large number of Northerners who have migrated to warmer climates, have fueled optimism that hockey could work in southern cities such as Atlanta.
Yet for the second time in league history, an NHL franchise has packed its hockey bags and departed Atlanta for points north of the border, leaving behind a trail of tears and an arena parking lot full of broken hearts.
The relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, Manitoba has some skeptics, particularly those Canadian hockey fans desperate for more NHL franchises closer to home, openly asking if professional hockey belongs in the Deep South.
Local fans and hockey loyalists still point to the long-standing tradition of minor league hockey as proof that the game cannot only survive but can also thrive in the south. At one point in the 1990s, the state with the most professional hockey teams wasn’t Wisconsin, Michigan, New York or Minnesota – it was Louisiana with six teams.
The arrival of these minor-league teams and the success they enjoyed for the better part of a decade led to the expansion of the NHL into Southern cities like Nashville, Raleigh, N.C., St. Petersburg, Fla., Miami and Atlanta.
Some have done very well, including the Carolina Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have each won a Stanley Cup title.
But with limited success on the ice, the Thrashers saw their support dwindle as the promise of future
success continued to fade. And when perennial All-Star winger Ilya Kovalchuk took his talents out of town in 2010, even the most diehard hockey fans began to see the writing on the wall that the
franchise would soon follow.
The loss only compounded the pain that hockey fans felt when the Flames extinguished their stay in
1980 only to reignite in Calgary, Alberta.
Still, it begs the question, what will happen to the grass-roots youth hockey programs that have taken
root in the Georgia landscape now that the driving force for growth has packed up and left?
To understand how this will affect the growth of youth hockey in the South, one must first understand
the impact the Thrashers had on grass-roots hockey throughout the region.
Bob McCaig, USA Hockey associate coach-in-chief for the Southeast, has been a volunteer with USA Hockey for more than 25 years and has witnessed firsthand the impact the Thrashers had on the youth hockey community in a big way.
“We saw an immediate increase in the number of players in beginner programs,” McCaig said. “They just sort of legitimized the sport for athletes in the South.”
Looking for new and creative ways to build their fan base, the Thrashers organization proved adept at connecting with the youth in Metro Atlanta’s small but dedicated hockey community. Whether it was visits to hospitals and schools, or taking time to visit with kids after practices, giving them sticks and pucks, or even participating in on-ice clinics and serving as guest coaches at youth team practices, the Thrashers got it right from a community standpoint.
“First and foremost, the awareness they brought to the sport was a huge factor,” said Kelly Hurt, Georgia state director for the Southern Amateur Hockey Association. “USA Hockey’s push in the South was certainly helped by the involvement of the Thrashers players who were always accessible to the kids after practices and games. It drew the young ones in as they began to idolize the NHL players.”
Over the past three years, the Thrashers implemented a cross-ice program that helped bring 4- to 8-year-old players to USA Hockey’s growth and retention program. In addition, Thrashers’ hockey development personnel and players were on the ice during Try Hockey for Free clinics that were held in conjunction with Hockey Across America.
The results of that involvement are apparent in the raw data. The SAHA (USA Hockey’s governing body for six states – Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana) has seen an 18.4 percent increase in new memberships since the 2008-09 season, with membership now at 1,340 players.
“The visibility of the Thrashers certainly helped,” McCaig said. “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen now because this feels like a death.”
For the hockey die-hards in Metro Atlanta, the Gwinnett Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League are certainly looking forward to the challenge of filling the void left by the departure of the Thrashers.
"Anytime an NHL team leaves a market, there is a bad perception and a black-eye initially sustained by that area,” said Gladiators President and General Manager Steve Chapman, who has already seen a spike in season ticket sales.
“The good news is, the Thrashers were here for more than 10 years and we’ve been here for almost that long, so youth hockey has gained a foot-hold.”
That is evident by the strength of youth hockey associations, such as the Atlanta Fire program, that have earned a reputation for fielding competitive teams at USA Hockey National Championships.
“There is definitely room for more growth, and we’re excited about the opportunity we have from a community standpoint,” Chapman said. “This really opens the door for us because since we were the Thrashers’ [ECHL] affiliate we played second fiddle to them and couldn’t do some things we wanted to do for youth hockey.
“We’re ready to step up and continue to build on what USA Hockey and the Atlanta Thrashers have been able to do for the growth of the sport here in the South.”
And while hockey will never check football off the top rung of the Southern sports ladder, the number of passionate fans has already proven that hockey is here to stay in the South, and that there is more going on with ice than just chilling a glass of sweet tea.