I have a lot of mixed feeling about the Townhall Meeting that took place Friday prior to the Thrashers/Wild game. If you want a rather detailed account of the questions and the answers Holland has blow by blow account over at the the Chicken I simply can't write that fast. I want to say that I totally agree with Holland that few really tough questions were asked--or they were not asked in a sufficiently pointed way.
One woman I spoke to suggested that they favored young people and women perhaps in an effort to avoid the angry white male--perhaps this it true--frankly I wasn't paying any attention to age or gender of the questioners so I'm in a poor position to evaluate. I do want to hand out the kudos to the woman in the 2nd row who asked the probably the most pointed question of the night "why do season ticket holders feel like the red headed step children around here?" and she stuck to her guns and asked a pointed follow up.
The whole dynamic between Bruce Levenson and Don Waddell seemed weird and it really detracted from the quality of the answers. Far too often they seemed to be more focused on which of them would answer a particular question rather than just giving us a focused answer to the question at hand. The first two questions consumed massive amounts of time and at one point Bruce snatched the microphone right out of Don's hands and Don started walking away as though he was leaving. At other times Bruce sat down and acted as though Don was on his own the rest of the way. At first I interpreted this as just them goofing around but I spoke to three or four other observers and they thought that it was evidence of genuine tension. Don is always joking around at this events so I tended to see it in that light.
Don Waddell really could run for elective office whenever his hockey career is over. He was in top form with his usual self deprecating humor and repeatedly got a packed angry crowd to laugh. It was really quite amazing to see. I worked in politics some years ago and he is better at working a crowd than at least two of my bosses.
The very best thing to come out of the meeting were explicit promises to bring in two quality defenders and another forward this summer through trades or free agency--looks like they are seeing the same games we are! They know defense is a problem, he said they tried to make some deals but there were essentially no defensemen traded all season (save Shane Hnidy) and they made a serious bid to acquire the top defenseman available at the deadline but the price was too high (what a waste of assets that would have been).
The other news was that the team is actively trying to implement some of the fan ideas that we have sent to them as part of the STH revolt that has been going on. However, I have to say I was really surprised at how this was underplayed. I expected Don to address this right off the top in his opening monologue and a full blown roll out of the expanded benefits. That never really happened although a sheet with the big word "draft" across the top was distributed at the end (this too is posted over at the Chicken). Considering all the angry people in the room I was really surprised that this wasn't played up a bit more since it contained several things suggested by people in that room. Looked like a missed PR opportunity to me. ("hey look at all these ways we are listening to you!")
For all the promises and talk about improving--at the end of they day that is all we received. Of course they can't make trades now or sign people, I realize that. On the other hand the Thrashers track record with UFA is just plain brutal. They haven't signed players who went on to have a significant positive impact in the past. The vast majority of UFA guys have turned out to be 3rd pairing defensemen and 2nd or 3rd line centers (don't we have a farm system for that sort of thing?). To be honest, the last three summers do not fill me with confidence that the team will get it right. It took several years for me to develop this lack of trust and I'm waiting to be impressed come July 1st.
The other major disappointment was that the meeting barely addressed my other major concern about heavily discounted tickets. Perhaps two sentences in the entire 45 minutes addressed this issue. I find this quite surprising since this is an area where they could have won over some wavering STH with the right words--but those words never came. I was looking for some sort of specific statement that discounts would absolutely be more limited and targeted and not widespread. I was also looking for some like a price protection guarantee. I heard nothing of the sort and as far as I'm concerned they blew a second opportunity to win me back.
When the meeting started I was excited and impressed that owner Bruce Levenson was willing to speak to the crowd but by the end it was clear that this was nothing short of public relations disaster. Levenson had some good points but his bedside manner was really lacking.
For example, he delivered the message that ticket prices will go up some every year--which was not popular of course--but he completely muffed his chance to win us back by explaining why this is critical. If Levenson had said "Look we have to show revenue growth every single season or we lose our revenue sharing money from the NHL--that money pays for the salary of Ilya Kovalchchuk--you do want us to afford Kovalchuk right?" that statement would have cushioned the blow a bit. He started down that line of thinking but broke off before making this critical point.
Or if Levenson had said "We are raising ticket prices each year, but we are turning around and putting that money into the hockey product so you the fans have a good team to cheer for" that too might have won some people over (like me to be very specific. I'm willing to pay more if the team is better). But Levenson basically delivered the message of annual ticket price increase with an attitude of "deal with it people" which cost him a lot of support in the room.
Levenson compounded the situation by getting into a dispute with a fan about the price of glass seats in Boston's arena. The fan was talking about a ticket for a specific game and Levenson was talking about the average price of the Thrashers compared to other teams and he never stopped to clarify that they were talking about two related but different things. In the end it appeared that he wasn't really listening to that particular fan because he was more focused on making his point--that our tickets are cheaper than the NHL average (which is true). Again, Levenson had some legitimate points but his delivery was so lacking that it weakened his own case.
I spoke with multiple long-term season ticket holders right after the meeting and heard the following words used to describe the team's owner "dick", "jerk" and one very polite southern lady said "a real pill" (which is probably the meanest thing she ever says about anyone)--I should add that every single one of these are people have either already renewed their ST or will renew, so these are not the most disaffected.
I'd like to believe that Don Waddell and Bruce Levenson planned ahead of time to do a good cop/bad cop routine. If that was their intention it worked like a charm as Waddell came out of the meeting looking like he really cared, that he shared the fans frustrations and hopes and looked tired and worn out. I can say he certainly won some empathy from me, I don't like all his decisions but I have no doubt he's working as hard as he can. He won some sympathy from me but he hasn't won my trust back that would requires some impressive actions this summer. I'll be waiting and watching.