- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 5, 2011

DULUTH, GA. (AP) - The signs are still up outside the IceForum, a rink in suburban Atlanta.

Atlanta Thrashers Practice Facility,” they proclaim, right below that familiar logo of a hockey stick-swinging bird.

Not anymore, of course.

The Thrashers are now in Winnipeg, re-christened the Jets and set to play before sellout crowds every night in hockey-crazed Canada. Atlanta will have to make do with a minor league team, the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators, after becoming the first city in the NHL’s modern era to blow it with not one, but two franchises.

“It’s an enormous emotional loss,” said Michael Gearon Jr., who was one of the Thrashers‘ co-owners. “The hardest part for me, by a long shot, is what it meant to my family. We were all huge fans.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t have a lot of company.

The Thrashers were traditionally one of the worst-drawing teams in the league. They struggled on the ice, too, making the playoffs only once during their 12-year existence. A last-ditch rally to save the team drew only a few hundred die-hards. When the Thrashers shuffled off to Winnipeg in early June, the reaction around Atlanta was a collective, “Hey, when does football season start?”

But for a resilient group of hockey lovers, losing the Thrashers cuts deep _ especially for those who remember the last time it happened.

Lisa Reisman was just 12 years old when the Flames moved to Calgary in 1980, the league’s first foray into the Deep South lasting a mere eight seasons. She remained a fan, however, cheering from afar as her old team won the Stanley Cup within a decade of its northward migration. Her loyalty paid off when Atlanta was awarded another expansion franchise that began play in 1999, this one taking its name from Georgia’s state bird instead of the city’s fiery destruction during the Civil War.

This season, Reisman was looking forward to being a full season-ticket holder for the first time after being able to afford only partial packages in the past. She was already making payments when the Thrashers left for Winnipeg. Instead of getting 41 games at Philips Arena, she had to settle for a refund.

“This is the second time it’s happened to me,” Reisman said. “It (stinks). It really does. I’m not going to watch it, even on television.”

She’s bitter at Gearon and the other former owners, a group known as Atlanta Spirit that sold the Thrashers for a reported $170 million. She’s even angrier at NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, claiming he quickly brokered a deal with Winnipeg interests without giving hockey a fair chance to succeed in her city.

“I’m not going to give the NHL anything until Bettman is gone. I hear he’s got three years left on his contract. I can wait,” Reisman said. “I’ll probably still keep up with the scores. I’ll still be a Flames fan. But I seriously doubt I’ll be a Winnipeg fan, even though it’s the same guys. I’m too mad about the way it happened.”

Hockey isn’t totally dead in Atlanta.

The Gladiators are getting ready for their ninth season in the ECHL. In a striking twist from the long-term attendance woes that plagued the Thrashers, Gwinnett (a suburban Atlanta county) has traditionally been one of the better-drawing franchises in a league that’s two steps down from the NHL, roughly the equivalent of Double-A baseball.

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