Wed Jun 01 10:46am EDT
Matthew Gunning is an Atlanta Thrashers fan. They exist. They were passionate. So passionate was Gunning, and frustrated by the lack of coverage for the team, that he created a blog called Thrashers Talons in 2006 and wrote under the name "The Falconer." His blog grew in popularity and eventually joined the SB Nation blog network as Bird Watchers Anonymous.
"As a blogger and a Thrashers fan, hockey is the defining part of my life," he said.
On Tuesday morning, his life was redefined. Atlanta's owners announced they had sold the team to True North, which will relocate the franchise to Winnipeg beginning next season. The Thrashers are no more, and will fade into memory like other defunct franchises.
Soon, too, will many of the blogs that covered them on a daily basis.
"I don't intend to keep writing a Thrashers blog when there's not a team," Grunning said. "I don't have any desire to write about the NHL in general right now. That might change in a year, but I think I need some time off from the League."
His fellow Thrashers bloggers have echoed that sentiment, with varying degrees of anger.
"We hope you don't let this sports team relocation destroy your life. Life is known to throw people some very rough stuff, and you'll be very lucky indeed if losing your favorite NHL team is the worst that happens to you.
"We know (from experience) how much a person can love a sports team, but ultimately it's just a sports team. It shouldn't be the center of your life, and you certainly shouldn't feel that your life has lost meaning and/or purpose now that the team is gone. And if you've been using fanatical devotion to a hockey team---and reading and typing about it on the Internet all the time---as an escape from unpleasant realities (a miserable job or relationship, general ennui or emptiness, etc.) you really can change your situation and do something actually fulfilling and meaningful. Changing your situation is hard, we know (especially right now in the realm of jobs), but it's not like you get another life. This is it."
When the press conference was announced, Mortimer responded with "I guess this means I'm done here."
"It seems as if doomsday has finally come, as an announcement should be coming today, according to multiple sources. Let me just say that I enjoyed my short time here at Thrasher Backer and enjoyed the time I had being a Thrashers fan. I'll never forget what brought me to this sport. Though I despise what's going on in the NHL right now, I can't leave the game. I'll go back to following the Blues, but I know it won't be the same. Thanks to those that followed and read the articles here and I wish all the best to you in the future."
Laura Astorian hasn't given up the fight at Thrashing the Blues, as she's taking on the economics in Winnipeg and rallying fans to petition the NHL Board of Governors to reject the sale in recent posts.
These blogs, and others, chronicle the pain and anguish of Thrashers fans. The highs and lows. The brief moments of euphoria and the countless moments of disappointment. They're tributes to all of it. Gunning said he had email correspondence with SB Nation editors, suggesting that Bird Watchers Anonymous remain active until the end of June and then leaving it on the site as a point of reference and nostalgia for Thrashers history.
Like other Thrashers fans, Gunning still has loyalty to the players, and there are some he'll actively root for as they compete in Manitoba; for Gunning, they're defenseman Toby Enstrom and young forward Evander Kane(notes).
"I'd like to see them actually make the playoffs," he said with a laugh.
"The Thrashers were a small fish in a big pond. And as fans, we had a lot of access. You could go to practice and talk to Kovalchuk," he said. "If you were a die hard hockey fan, you've talked to a bunch of players over the years. They're probably a very strong personal attachment to some of these guys."
Gunning said the Thrashers "made Atlanta special" for him. "I was a big fish in a small pond. The players knew my name. The GM knew my name."
At the 2009 NHL Draft in Montreal, Gunning and a few other SB Nation editors hit up an Italian restaurant for dinner, unaware that the Thrashers' brass were actually upstairs at the same eatery. As the team filed out after the meal, Thrashers GM Don Waddell spotted Gunning, walked over to his table, made small talk and met the rest of the editors.
"Everyone else was in awe. 'Not only does he recognize you, he knows your name,'" he recalled.
"And I'm like yeah, that's Atlanta."
Or at least it was. Gunning began to really worry about the team's future when the Phoenix Coyotes were spared relocation to Winnipeg, following the City of Glendale's approval of $25 million to fund the team in 2011-12.
"I had a very bad feeling when the Glendale city council came up with the $25 million to keep the Coyotes there for another season, because I was convinced they were headed to Winnipeg," he said.
While Atlanta journalists and fans have blasted the NHL, Gunning doesn't hold Gary Bettman solely accountable for the Thrashers' demise.
"I had heard from a lot of different people that [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman really, really, really didn't want to leave [Atlanta]. Supposedly, the owners said they were going to declare the Thrashers bankrupt and the League would have to take over a second team. Instead, Winnipeg said they'd buy the team, give $60 million to the League. So Bettman realized he couldn't run two franchises, he couldn't turn down $60 million and he couldn't keep pissing off Canada," he said.
"I have mixed feelings on Bettman, but if there was a way to keep the Thrashers here for next season, I think he would have moved mountains for them. If Bettman thought he could find an owner in the next 12 months, he would have kept the team here."
It all comes back to ownership for Thrashers fans, in the sense that the team was never good enough for long enough to truly gauge the strength of the market.
"My biggest disappointment is that the Atlanta market is going to be viewed as a failed NHL market, and I don't think it ever got a fair shake," said Gunning. "I would love to have seen what this market did if the team made the playoffs for three years straight. But we'll never know what the fan base would have done with a competitive team. Because we never had one."
It's just another "what if?" tossed on the pile, along with Dany Heatley(notes) and Marian Hossa(notes) and Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) and so many others. What if Patrik Stefan, drafted No. 1 overall in 1999, hadn't been a bust? What if Atlanta had landed an established NHL team in relocation instead of an expansion team? Would this market look like Dallas instead of one bidding their franchise farewell?
That hypotheticals will be asked for generations in Atlanta. But in the present, the region's puckheads face life without an NHL team in their city. For Gunning, that means being open to his own relocation from Atlanta to another city with an NHL team.
"For me, owning NHL season tickets was a lifelong dream. And that's not possible now," he said.