I can only think of one word to encapsulate Thrasher-world on Saturday Feb 6th and that word is "unexpected".
I expected a Thrashers Townhall full of Season Ticket Holders in full revolt. I expected someone might stand up and rip up their tickets and throw them down in disgust. I expected to hear calls for the GM to be fired and new ownership. I expected someone to yell "show him the money!"
Instead I witnessed a spirited and rather honest-back-and-forth between fans, GM and ownership. I heard a surprisingly candid and mature discussion about the state of the team from both fans and management. From the fans, I heard anger and frustration, but also a recognition that their is more than one way to build a hockey team. From management, I heard both the GM and owner take their lumps and admit that "we've made mistakes" but also pledge that "we're here to win hockey games and we're committed to accomplishing that goal." There was a lot less salesmanship and a lot more plain speaking than I expected. [More details on the Townhall coming up below.]
That meeting was followed by an unexpected hockey game. The Thrashers team had lost the night before to the Washington Capitals. Historically, NHL teams struggle in the 2nd of back to back games. In the Thrashers case, their difficulty was exacerbated by the historic snowfall in Washington which caused them to consume 10 hours traveling home to Atlanta. The start of the game against Florida had to be pushed back almost an hour. Given those conditions, I would not have been surprised to see a tired team bereft of their star player produce a stinker effort.
Instead, the team came out with great passion and energy and out-shot and out-worked the opponent. Ron Hainsey fought, Tobias Enstrom and Pavel Kubina pinched in like the ghost of Bobby Orr. Zach Bogosian and Evander Kane were rowdy, and new Thrasher Nicklas Bergfors supplied a beautiful game winner. The players moved around on the power play, and the passing was crisp. Reasoner and Oduya were outstanding on the PK, and Hedberg was up to the task in goal. They played like a like a team. If every hockey game was this exciting, the tickets would sell themselves. It was easily one of the most entertaining games of the season. With the late start, the crowd was all there from the National Anthem and they were prepared to make some noise. The team fed off the nearly full building. It was both startling and exciting at the same time. It was very unexpected.
Now the Thrashers get a couple days off to practice with their two new guys before the face a critical 3 game road trip before the Olympic Break. If they lose all three, their playoffs aspirations are on life support--it is so hard to make up points in March with all of the three point games and falling behind by 6-7 points could be fatal. However, if they get only one win, they're in trouble, but it could still work out favorably. Two wins and they will have set themselves up for the NHL version of March Madness where they battle for one of those last three playoff berths. These next three games in February are incredibly important contests.
Thrashers Townhall Meeting Recap
[As usual I took detailed notes, but unless I use quotes, it is a paraphrase of what was said.]
The fans packed the Hawks Practice court and almost every seat was taken. Season ticket reps lined one wall. On the other wall were senior management of the team and building. When Don Waddell walked in he was accompanied by two owners (Bruce Levenson and Ed Peskowitz) and the CEO of Philips Arena. There was definitely tension in the air.
Waddell began by talking about the arduous travel from DC. They departed via bus at 9 a.m. to Richmond, VA. Grazed a truck on the icy roads where they lost a mirror, reached their plane by 2pm, but had to wait 2 more hours to be de-iced and for weather clearance. The takeoff was a real "white knuckler" and they didn't reach Philips Arena until almost 6pm.
Waddell then shifted to Kovalchuk and did an overview of contract talks. They met with his agent almost a year ago in April. Then, in June, they talked with Kovalchuk at his home about which free agents to target that summer. In July, Kovalchuk said he wanted to wait to see how the team looked before starting talks. Waddell said "I really thought he wanted to stay, so we waited." The team was winning, and in November, Kovy green-lighted talks. Kovalchuk's side asked for 12 years at the cap max of $11+ million and they never budged from that number. The Thrashers countered with multiple offers of different contract lengths and dollar amounts ranging from 7 years to 10 years. Their 10 year offer combined with the money the Thrashers had already paid Kovalchuk in his first 8 seasons, would have added up to a career total of $149 million--which is more money than any player has ever made in a career in the NHL. They offered more money per year than any other NHL player currently makes. Kovalchuk's position was that he felt he deserved the cap max and would wait to free agency on July 1st to see if a team would meet that price.
Once trade talks began the market was "smaller than the number of rumored teams" because everyone knew his contract demands where high enough that they couldn't acquire him and hope that he would sign for less money. A pure rental trend simply doesn't bring as much. Talks really came down to three teams and the offers where not amazing. Their goal was to acquire both immediate help and future considerations. Cormier: Thrashers Rick Dudley and Dan Marr both had him ranked as the #1 prospect in NJ system. Devils refused to part with him for first 24 hours of serious talks, finally relented then they said no deal without him. Oduya: plays big minutes, can not have too many quality defenseman, plays in all situations, signed for several years to reasonable contract--Dudley really liked him as well. Berfgors: can score the puck, young and crafty, will mature with other young talent like Kane.
Change creates new opportunities. It was Ilya's team before--by design--now the door is open for other leaders to step up. "I think the team was ready for a change, not a knock on Ilya, but they always looked at him. Sometimes that was not enough. They're disappointed because Ilya is a good person and teammate and sad to see him go. But they are ready to compete for the playoffs--it was a very determined room on Friday." He then opened it up to questions.
Everybody knew that some questions needed to be brought up and the first guy did not disappoint. He asked Don if he shouldn't step down and let Dudley take over? Waddell said that "I have no intention of stepping down. It is ownership's decision not mine." He said that Dudley is a good evaluator of talent. "I have made some mistakes in the past, but if we had kept Kovalchuk the price was so high that later we would have to choose between keeping either Bogosian or Kane" when it came time for their pay raises. "under a cap system you have to make choices, the pie is only so big and the players understand that too."
The next questioner continued the line of attack by saying, "this franchise can't retain top guys. Going way back we let Staios, Brunette, and Savard depart, when are we going to keep our stars?" Waddell: We agreed that the team did choose to pass on Staios, Brunette and Savard, while Hossa and Heatley made their own decisions to leave.
Q What about the three goalies? Waddell: We're pretty happy with what we have seen this year. Goaltending has not been our biggest problem. Mannino is tearing it up in the AHL. We will not keep 3 goalies at NHL level, not enough starts or practice time to go around. The market for goalie trades is not good though, return will be very modest. [Later another goalie question was asked but I'm going to put both answers here.] 2nd question was basically, "What's the problem with Kari?" Waddell pointed to his lack of dependability and indicated that in the locker room the players no longer feel like they can count on him and perhaps they don't play as hard for him as they do for Hedberg.
Another tough, but good question, came next, "Why does this team play listless half the time? Isn't that the job of the coaching staff to have these guys ready? Waddell: "Of course it is on the coach, but the players also have to take responsibility as well. I watch the games and just like you I ask myself why the slow starts. Unlike you guys I can go down to the locker room and ask the players--I don't always like the answers I get. It is a big concern, we have discussed it a lot. I think we have been better in the 1st period the last time games with the exception of the Carolina game. He made a joke that we should all just keep talking through the 1st "because we will be down 2-0 anyway"--which was prophetic.
Earlier DW had left open the possibilty of making an offer to Ilya Kovalchuk if he reaches the UFA market in July. So someone asked "Why would we even attempt to re-sign Kovy on July 1st if the team wants to head in a new direction? If you go with a new philosophy shouldn't you stick with it?" In his answer Waddell focused on the current Thrashers roster and their potential to compete. He said "I know half you guys in here hate me, so let me put it this way [pause] Rick Dudley thinks we have the talent right now to be a playoff team." [laughter in the room]
Next question was about the identity of the team now. Waddell: We can't just rely on being flashy to win games, neither do we want to try and win every game 2-1--margin of error too small, boring hockey. We've always been offensive minded, but we have made some improvement on the defensive side. Adding Oduya another step in that process. We will score goals without Ilya, but we still need to cut down our goals allowed to win games. Then Waddell tossed out that Valabik had probably injured his ACL and was likely down for the season. "He'll get an MRI on Monday to confirm it, but it doesn't look good."
Next questioner critiqued both Kovalchuk and the sausages--no I'm not making this up. He said Kovalchuk took his helmet off on the bench toward the end of a recent game and looked like he had given up, bad signal from the captain. Also game experience had declined and sausages are smaller. The guy sitting behind me said "I never thought I'd miss Aramark." Waddell tried to make amends to this STH--let's just say that guy is getting a new ticket rep.
Waddell mentioned next season they might offer benefit package with a menu of choices because not everyone wants the same side benefits. [Personally I thought this was a rather creative approach, but it will certainly require work by the staff to keep track of who gets what.]
Another pointed but rational question next. "I've been a STH for many years, tell me why I should renew?" Of all the questions asked the entire night this one proved most troublesome for DW. He began by talking about how a team is not just one individual. Then he said that fans should give the guys still here a chance to show what they can do--they have a lot of pride. Probably no ticket increases next year. We know we have to win and we're doing our best to make that take place. The one year we made the playoffs the crowds were good, right now only hard core fans coming, we think 4,000 disaffected former STH who still watch and come now and then. Rest of Atlanta will only come if we grab their attention. [That last part sounded almost like quote from a blog somewhere.]
I'm going to pause here and say that it seemed to me that Waddell had mentally prepared for all sorts of Kovy related questions and was really caught flat-footed on this one, it was his worst answer of the night in my opinion. As a fan here's what I would have liked to hear Don Waddell say to that person: "We have a PLAN to compete and win. Here is our plan.
- Improve our ability identify talent--which we did by adding Rick Dudley and canning our Q scout.
- Get younger and avoid declining veterans--which we did with this Kovalchuk trade.
- Get players that fit our identity (young, fast and puck skills) and our coach--which we have done over the last year.
- Make hard choices and trade away players who don't fit our identity--which we did with Exelby.
We have a plan, but it will not turn around the ship immediately. We have learned from past mistakes and here is the route we have mapped out to win in the future." I think an answer like that would have sold some renewal packages.
Next another tough question "Where are our owners, we see Arthur Blank all the time, where are these guys? We only hear about them suing each other. And why didn't you give Kovy an ultimatum this summer?" Waddell: "The one regret I have is that we didn't get know they would not budge from a cap max back in July. This could have happened a lot faster. I really thought he wanted to stay and that was wrong."
Waddell: As for the owners, being seen is not what it is all about. They take a lot of heat from fans. We ask for support for the team and staff and they do that. They are involved in every decision. People complain about their support for the hockey side, but we just offered more money to Kovalchuk than than they are paying to any NBA player. They are committed to building the team--for example the year we made the playoffs they agreed to add some expensive players. Our DC owners probably attend as many Thrasher games as I do. And then he turned mic over to owner Bruce Levenson.
Bruce Levenson: I'm not Arthur Blank you will not see me down on the bench but I spend almost every 3rd period in Don's box. We have worked together for 6 years. In business you have to work with people you trust and we have have that with him. On the NBA side we changed the GM, we would do that on the hockey side if we felt it was necessary. I've received many requests to fire Don from current and former STH. We could perhaps make some money if we fired him but we trust him. As owners we have made some good decisions and bad decisions. I probably talk to Don 3-4 times a day. I'm not a GM and I'm not a coach, I'm an owner, but I'm not afraid to make a change. On the NBA side we changed the GM but kept our coach and he is now the longest tenure in the East. Our NBA team has improved for six straight seasons. We want sustained success on the hockey side, but we have made more mistakes. But we want to win--otherwise we would not have made an offer for $101 million to a player. You don't do that if you plan on quitting on hockey.
Q Who will lead, who will be captain? Waddell: We have four players with an "A" stick with that for the moment and see who steps up. They have 11 guys on the roster who were captain before in college or in junior hockey. "A lot of potential there." Tossed out that Kubina has been a real "take charge" guy for this team.
Q What about other UFAs on the roster? Waddell: We're been pretty busy with Kovalchuk thing and have possible goalie trade coming up. Kubina--we plan to begin talks with his agent during Olympic break. [After session was over I asked Waddell if they would re-sign Kubina if it meant having 5 quality D who make all make some $? He said yes and he was hopeful that an extension could be worked out.] Waddell said he and Colby had "an interesting conversation" this week and they would talk again over the break--which sounded decidedly less hopeful than his Kubina comments. As for Max, he praised his hard work and willingness to prove himself to the NHL when he could have gotten more money in the KHL. "We will really need his goal scoring down the stretch." [My interpretation: don't invest in a Max jersey folks.]
A final question about ownership and rumors of Thrashers relocation. owner Bruce Levenson took this one: "Everyone wrote the obituary of hockey in Atlanta during the lockout--and here we are 5 years later. We are committed to building a team here. This is one of the largest markets in the USA, I'd rather own a team here than a number of other NHL cities. We wouldn't have made a $101 million offer to Kovalchuk if we planned on bailing on hockey. I live in DC and I remember a game when the Thrashers traveled up to play the Caps. We beat them in their building and Kovy had two goals that night. [Waddell: "Who was the coach that night?" --it was Waddell as coach] It was a Monday night and there was nobody in the building--just a few thousand people. And now the Caps are the hottest ticket in DC. That's what winning can do. I'm good friends with the Caps owner and we talk about this all the time. Just look at the Hawks. When we bought them they were the laughing stock of the NBA. We've turned them around. And now we're trying our hardest to do that on the hockey side.
Final Observations. I was impressed that the hostile questions were pretty rational and on point. Often when people are really angry logic gives way to insults or shouting. The hostile questions were much more civil than I expected. The other thing that really shocked me is just how many people thought Kovalchuk had asked for too much money. I heard a lot of people muttering that they liked him, but he was asking for too much. I thought there would be more "Kovy at any price" people there tonight. Bruce Levenson was much better this time, I would have liked to hear something about the budget for next season when he mentioned that they were committed to competing.
I hope you enjoyed reading this summary. Please forgive whatever mistakes. It's 2 a.m. and I'm totally worn out after putting the rest of my life on "pause" during Kovy Trade Week. Don Waddell looked pretty tired too, at one point he called Evander Kane "Patrick Kane" which caused a few chuckles.