A Blueland Rising

For two days, the Atlanta Thrashers mascot, Thrash, was in jail. It was only fitting that Atlanta fans gave him his freedom on the night of the return of former Thrasher, Ilya Kovalchuk. And after receiving a 7-1 thrashing at Philips Arena Saturday night, it’s a day Kovalchuk and the rest of the New Jersey Devils will want to quickly forget.

“Everything went wrong,” Kovalchuk told the Associated Press. “I don’t know what it is. It’s unacceptable. It’s embarrassing.”

Atlanta jumped out to a 3-0 lead after the first period and enforcer Eric Boulton scored his first ever NHL hat trick, as coupled with a loss from the Washington Capitals, the Thrashers now reside in the Southeast Division penthouse. They are also second in the Eastern Conference.

Who ever thought that might either of those things might happen?

The Thrashers have dealt with an internal ownership battle for the past two seasons and are clearly the red-headed stepchild of the Atlanta Spirit, which owns both the Hawks and Thrashers. Former GM Don Waddell had no choice but to trade Kovalchuk last season after being unable to secure the funds to sign him long term and promise the payroll to build a consistent winner.

Atlanta has never won a postseason game while three of its divisional foes have played for the Stanley Cup (Florida, Tampa Bay and Carolina) with the latter two having each won once. Washington also has had success, winning the President’s Trophy last season, and they now play in a full building every night.

The Thrashers needed to prove to a now distrustful and nearly alienated fan base they are a legitimate contender and worthy of their support. Twice this year, Atlanta set record-low attendances. But it’s about time they begin to receive the attention they deserve.

Credit the Atlanta marketing staff, because they have gone to seemingly unfathomable lengths to get people in the building. A week ago, the intro page to the Thrashers web site proclaimed, “It’s time to WAKE UP ATLANTA!” and a few days ago, in concert with the Gwinnett County (Ga.) police, had the team’s mascot jailed for stealing a Zamboni from the team’s practice facility. Thrash could only be released if the fans purchased an additional 5,000 tickets in December, and they did it after only two games.

The announced attendance of Saturday’s game was 17,024, by far the highest of the season, and the building was electric. Blueland was alive with blue, unlike their other highly attended games (Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh when most of the fans cheered against Atlanta).The boos rained on Kovalchuk all game long and here’s to hoping the building continues to remain at near-capacity.

Fans of more established teams may scoff at the apparent gimmicks the Thrashers have pulled the last few weeks, but remember, it wasn’t too long ago that the United Center in Chicago averaged fewer than 10,000 fans per game. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Original 6 team like the Blackhawks, or an Original 30 team like Atlanta, sometimes you have to do anything you can to get attention.

I wrote back in July that this squad is a playoff team, and I have no reason to alter that. Except, of course, to say that this team might just be close to being an elite team. It has all the pieces, and the right mentality to play in a city in Atlanta.

There is a fan base here. Fans I’ve spoken to love this team, but even they admitted it was hard to buy what Atlanta’s been selling the last few season. Not this year though, and maybe, just maybe, the team has reached the point where the marketing staff can have the team do their job for them. And not have to send Thrash back to the slammer.

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