Georgia hockey fans have good reason to cheer because, after catching fire in March, the Winnipeg Jets snuck into the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs!
If the previous statement doesn’t make sense, you probably weren’t a die-hard Atlanta Thrashers fan in the early aughts.
If it does make sense to you, good on you for sticking with your team, which was sold to a Canadian ownership group in 2011 and became – you guessed it! – the Winnipeg Jets.
While the state of Georgia hasn’t had a pro hockey team for over a decade, its NHL roots run deeper than you’d think, and the city of Atlanta still maintains a palpable connection to the current NHL.
Georgia and pro hockey go way back
The Thrashers were actually Georgia’s second NHL expansion team. You need to go back more than 50 years for its first team.
Before the 1971 NHL season, the league added the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames, expanding the total number of teams to 16.
The Flames lasted eight years in Atlanta, qualifying for the playoffs in six of their eight seasons, but they could never solidify the fanbase. The team eventually relocated to Alberta, Canada, where they kept the name and the red-and-yellow color scheme and became the Calgary Flames. Since 1980, the Calgary Flames have captured two division titles and one Stanley Cup (1989).
After the Flames departed Georgia, hockey remained absent from much of the American south until 1997, when the league added four expansion teams, two of them in the south.
The Atlanta Thrashers finally capture the Atlanta fanbase
The 1997 expansion created the Nashville Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild and Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers joined the NHL’s Southeast Division, where they remained for 14 years.
During their very limited heyday – the 2006-07 season – they qualified for the franchise’s first and only playoff appearance. The team, which featured top talent in Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Kari Lehtonen in goal, added Steve Rucchin and Niko Kapanen in expectation of a big season.
The 2006-07 season delivered. Philips Arena, where the Thrashers played their home games, saw franchise attendance records and the unlikely support of the Atlanta hip-hop community.
Jermaine Dupri wore both Atlanta Flames and Atlanta Thrashers jerseys in the video for “Welcome to Atlanta.” Atlanta native Lil John, a longtime hockey fan whose roots went back to the days of the Flames, regularly attended games with his son. He wore the Thrashers’ baby blue jersey and even posed with the Stanley Cup when the team made the playoffs.
That year, the Thrashers finished first in the Southeast Division, recording a franchise record 97 points, but got swept by the New York Rangers in the first round.
An Atlanta tragedy and an NHL legacy
While a notable highpoint for the fanbase, arguably the most notable moment in franchise history involved tragedy and not celebration.
Twenty years ago, Thrashers center Dan Snyder died after injuries sustained in a car accident involving him and star forward Danny Heatley.
Snyder, who was in his first NHL season, was the passenger in Heatley’s Ferrari when it crashed. He slipped into a coma after the accident and died of septic shock a few days later.
In Snyder’s honor, the team instituted the Dan Snyder Memorial Award in 2004, honoring the player who “best embodies perseverance, dedication and hard work without reward or recognition, so that his team and teammates might succeed.” It was given annually to the Thrasher who best embodied those qualities.
When the team relocated to Winnipeg, Atlanta fans were concerned that Snyder’s legacy would be diminished, but the Winnipeg ownership group did right by the Thrashers and the Snyder family.
In a 2011 Winnipeg Free Press article, Scott Brown, director of hockey operations and communication, said of Atlanta, “[We] saw all the things they did for Dan Snyder and we are fully prepared and will be honouring everything to do with him. Dan Synder’s friends and family should not worry at all about that.”
Every year since, the Winnipeg Jets have given out the Dan Snyder Memorial Award to the top Jet who embodies the qualities outlined in the original award. The 2023 recipient was Winnipeg center Adam Lowry.
Two points kept Georgia from sending two teams to the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs
If we’re still playing the let’s-live-vicariously-through-our-departed-hockey-team game, then Georgia was two points shy of sending two teams to the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs. That would’ve tied Georgia with Florida and New York for most teams in the 2023 playoffs. Pretty good showing for a state that only has three NHL players to its name.
The Calgary Flames hung in there until the bitter end. Around the season’s midpoint, Calgary sat in contention, but it sputtered in the last couple of months and slid down the standings. While a letdown for Flames fans who saw their team battle to the second round of the 2022 playoffs, this has been something of a rebuilding year for the team. Even still, Calgary nearly clinched a playoff spot, coming up two points shy of the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.
Ironically, the team that edged them out for the final spot: the Winnipeg Jets.
Feature Image Credit: David Goldman / AP