In June 1997, the National Hockey League awarded the city of Atlanta its second expansion team, to begin play during the 1999-2000 season. Reportedly, the NHL had insisted that a new arena be built as part of the deal. The Omni was demolished in July 1997 and work began immediately on the new arena. The Dutch Royal Philips Electronics, based in Amsterdam, purchased the naming rights to the arena. Philips Arena was designed with the club seats and luxury boxes along one side of the playing surface, with the general admission seating along the other three sides. The result was to allow the bulk of the seats to be closer to the playing surface while providing a sufficient number of revenue-raising club seats.
Ted Turner, the team's original owner who also owned the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Hawks, announced that the team would be called the Thrashers in honor of the brown thrasher, Georgia's official state bird. Within nine months the team had sold 12,000 season tickets for its inaugural season.
Don Waddell, the assistant general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, was hired as the Thrashers' first general manager at the conclusion of the 1997-98 season. The team did not sign their first player until June 18, 1999, veteran goaltender Damian Rhodes. In July 1999 Curt Fraser Fraser, who coached the Orlando Solar Bears for four years, was named the team's first head coach.
The Thrashers played their first home game at the brand new Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta on October 2, 1999. They dropped a 4-1 decision to the New Jersey Devils before a sellout crowd. The Thrashers averaged 17,206 fans during their inaugural season, ranking 11th in the 28 team league, despite their 14-57-7-4 record.
In June 2001, the Thrashers selected Ilya Kovalchuk with its first overall pick in the NHL entry draft, making him the first Russian player to be the first selection in an NHL draft. In his rookie season during 2001–02, Kovalchuk scored 29 goals and 51 points, even though he missed the last 17 games with a season-ending shoulder injury. Kovalchuk finished second in voting to teammate Dany Heatley for the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year.
Under Fraser’s leadership, the team did show some modest improvement every season. But the team’s inability to qualify for a playoff spot did not do much for attendance, and by the end of the 2002-03 season, only 13,476 fans per game went through the turnstiles at Philips Arena. Curt Fraser was replaced by Bob Hartley, who led the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup in 2001.
Prior to the start of Hartley’s first full season as head coach, two events took place that would affect the Thrashers in the long term. In mid September, Turner Broadcasting System announced it had signed a binding agreement to sell the Thrashers, the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and the operating rights to the Philips Arena to an investment partnership known collectively as the Atlanta Spirit LLC. Then on September 29, 2003, a sports car driven by Dany Heatley ran off the road in the 3000 block of Lenox Road in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. Both Heatley and teammate Dan Snyder, who was a passenger in the car, suffered serious injuries. Snyder succumbed to his injuries and died six days later. Heatley, who was charged with vehicular homicide, returned to the team to play thirty-one games in the 2003-04 season. The Thrashers would end up missing the playoffs again with a record of 33-37-8-4.
Following the 2004-05 NHL lockout season, Heatley was traded to the Ottawa Senators, in an effort to leave Atlanta and put the incident behind him. Heatley had managed to avoid a trial as part of a plea deal that was supported by the Snyder family and was sentenced to three years probation, ordered to make 50 speeches a year for three years about the perils of speeding and to make sure his car had a device installed to prevent it from exceeding 70 mph.
In the 2005-06 season, the Thrashers posted their first winning record at 41-33-8. Ilya Kovalchuk became the first Thrasher to score more then 50 goals with 52 but the team came up short of their goal to reach the playoffs. Attendance was up to an average of 15,550 per game as the team’s on-ice performance improved. In 2006-07, the team won seven of their first nine games, with Marian Hossa (acquired from Ottawa in the trade for Dany Heatley) and Ilya Kovalchuk leading the Thrashers in goals scored with 43 and 42 respectively. The Thrashers earned their first playoff berth with a record of 43-28-11, their 97 points earning them a division championship. The Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers in the opening round, a bitter disappointment to the capacity crowds that packed Philips Arena for the first two games of the series.
Following their disappointing playoff sweep, the Thrashers lost their first six games in 2007-08, which cost Bob Hartley his job as he was fired on October 17th. General Manager Don Waddell took over on an interim basis and the team would win seven of their first ten games after the coaching change, but it was only temporary. The Thrashers continued to struggle through December and entered 2008 with a 19-20-1 record. After hosting the NHL All-Star Game, the Thrashers made a move to get back into the post-season with six wins in an eight game stretch but they were unable to sustain the effort and finished the season with a disappointing record of 34-40-8. Even more disappointing to fans, the team dealt Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, and a first round pick in the 2008 NHL Draft.
During the off season, John Anderson was named the fourth head coach in the franchise’s eight- year history. The Thrashers again got off to a bad start as they won just two of their first 11 games and ended December with a 12-21-5 record. While there were some bright spots, namely Ilya Kovalchuk’s 43 goal season, the team finished with a 35-41-6 record.
Taking place in the background during this time was a bitter legal battle involving the owners of the Atlanta Spirit Group that began over a dispute over a basketball trade. The owners reportedly spent millions of dollars on attorneys to settle the first disagreement, then they did battle with the law firm that represented them, claiming the firm “made egregious errors that caused us to be tied up in litigation for five years and cost us an enormous amount of money, time and anguish.”
The 2009-10 season was the last one on Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract. The team reportedly offered Kovalchuk two options: 12 years for $101 million and seven years for $70 million. The Thrashers played well to start the season, holding a 14-7-3 record by the end of November. However, as December arrived the Thrashers struggled, going 4-13-1 into the New Year. While the Thrashers improved in January, it became clear they were not going to be able to re-sign Kovalchuk. On February 4th, 2010, it what many believe was the final sign the ownership group was not interested in producing a winning product on the ice, Kovalchuk was traded to the New Jersey Devils. Despite finishing second in the Southeast Division, with a record of 35-34-13, they were eliminated from the playoffs on April 6th, losing at home to the Devils, fittingly during Ilya Kovalchuk's first game back in Philips Arena since the trade.
For 2010-11, John Anderson was out as coach, replaced by Craig Ramsay. Rick Dudley took over as General Manager as Don Waddell was named President of Hockey Operations. Atlanta took advantage of the fire sale by the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions Chicago Blackhawks and acquired Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Akim Aliu and Andrew Ladd. Ladd would be named team captain at the start of the season. But the team struggled all season, ending the season with a record of 34-36-12.
Also that year, the six-year internal battle amongst the team’s owners reportedly left the Atlanta Spirit Group $130 Million in the red. Blaming the losses on poor attendance, the group publically sought new investors or a new owner, hoping to keep the team in Atlanta. But many believe the NHL had already orchestrated the deal that would move the franchise to Winnipeg, allowing the NHL to collect a $60 Million relocation fee in the process.
On April 10, 2011, 16,085 fans at Philips Arena watched the final game the Atlanta Thrashers played, a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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