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Atlanta trades Thrashers for minor league hockey
Last season, the Gladiators ranked fifth in the 19-team ECHL with an average or more than 5,100 a game at their modern arena along Interstate 85. They’ve never ranked outside the Top 10 in attendance.
Gwinnett expects a bump from Thrashers fans making their way to the suburbs. Already, team president Steve Chapman said new season-ticket sales are up about 20 percent over last season. By opening night, the team hopes to sell about 2,000 season packages.
“If fans come out and really give it a chance _ meet the people around ‘em, enjoy the facilities and everything we’re about _ I guarantee we can fill the void,” Chapman said.
Reisman is among those who traded NHL tickets for a much more affordable season package with the Gladiators. She says everyone who sat around her at Philips Arena has purchased tickets in the same spot _ along the goal line _ for the Arena at Gwinnett Center. She’s at least willing to give this lower level of hockey a chance to fill the void, with a caveat.
“It depends how much they fight,” she said, her voice rising with excitement. “That’s the best thing about the game, when they’re kicking the living crap out of each other. I know these guys are trying to get to NHL. But it should be fun. If they play that type of hockey, hell yeah, it’ll be great.”
Gearon has no plans to attend a Gladiators game. He’s not sure he could bear to watch another hockey team in Atlanta while the franchise he once owned is playing somewhere else. In fact, he spent all but a couple of days this past summer away from the city, saying he needed time to deal with the disappointment of not being able to find a way to save the Thrashers.
“I wasn’t running away from anything,” Gearon insisted in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I was just drained. When you have a loss, sometimes you just need to get away.”
Atlanta Spirit remains a convenient target for disgruntled Thrashers fans. There’s no disputing the team generally had one of the league’s lowest payrolls, losing many of its top players through trades or free agency. Also, the ownership group was embroiled for years in a legal dispute with one of its former partners, which undoubtedly hampered efforts to line up new funding.
Still, Gearon feels the partnership did everything it could to keep an NHL team in Atlanta. He points out that none of Atlanta’s most prominent _ and richest _ citizens stepped up to help the team. Atlanta Spirit had been seeking additional investors since 2008, and Gearon made it clear in February that the current ownership couldn’t continue to absorb some $20 million a year in losses.
“I feel bad as an Atlantan,” Gearon said. “I don’t feel bad about the way we did things. I was the one guy in the city who stepped up and did what I could, when there were other people in this city who didn’t step up and could have. I’m secure enough in myself _ other than feeling bad for my kids _ that I can handle it. I don’t agree with people who say it’s my fault. Over eight years, we put more than $100 million into that team, basically subsidizing entertainment for the city of Atlanta.”
Gearon’s youngest son still sleeps in a bedroom decorated with Thrashers gear, everything from the pillowcases to the pictures on the wall. There’s still plenty of kids playing the game, too, at several rinks scattered around the sprawling suburbs.
But some youth hockey officials fret about the long-term impact of losing the NHL.
“It’s going to affect us in the future,” said Curtis Morrison, who runs a program for some 250 kids and young adults at the Marietta Ice Center. “It’s going to affect us more at the learn-to-play, learn-to-skate levels. When kids had an opportunity to go to a Thrashers games with their parents, it obviously piqued their interest right away.”
The Gladiators are trying to fill that void, taking over some of the outreach programs that had been handled by the Thrashers.
The ECHL team also has taken advantage of the locker room and weight-training facilities left behind at the IceForum, using them during training camp.
By Tom Fitton
New photos confirm the attack's coordination and its cover-up
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