August 19, 2010
(Ed. Note: Welcome to Puck Daddy's August series, "Mount Puckmore" which will feature fans, bloggers and various media personalities of all 30 teams choosing the four defining faces of their franchise. These four people are who you remember most when you think of these teams -- whether they be players, coaches or executives. We'll be running these daily for the rest of the month. Today, representing the Atlanta Thrashers, Aaron Brown and Laura Astorian of Birdwatchers Anonymous.)
By Aaron Brown and Laura Astorian
The Atlanta Thrashers Hockey Club has a long and illustrious history of top-flight players that could easily be enshrined in stone. Names such as Peter Bondra, Chris Chelios(notes), Mathieu Schneider(notes) and Mark Recchi(notes) have graced the Thrashers' roster.
Unfortunately, those top-flight players have all played in what could be accurately described as very short stints in "past-their-prime" years. Hey, what do you expect from a franchise that obtained its original starting goalie from the Ottawa Senators(!!!) for "future considerations"?
Let that sink in.
Yes, Thrashers hockey has been mostly a comedy of errors. Yes, most of the legitimate star players the Thrashers have had on their roster have fled for money, glory, or both. Yes, being a Thrashers fan sometimes feels more like a support group than anything else. But the assignment was "four players/executives/etc that most define your team," and here they are.
Don Waddell, GM
For better or for worse, the first decade of Atlanta Thrashers hockey begins and ends with Don Waddell.
From the highs (as in, high draft picks) to the lows (as in, trading high draft picks for not much), the hand of the Teflon Don has guided it all. To be fair, it hasn't been an easy ride. For however little scrutiny the Thrashers might've been under in the local media, there was that much more attention being paid by media that want the Thrashers moved somewhere snowier and therefore more deserving.
For a little while, the outlook for Peach-State Puck was very good -- but then, the Accident. But we'll get to that in a moment.
Waddell, suddenly faced with Dany Heatley's(notes) surprising request to be traded, orchestrated a nifty deal with Ottawa Senators GM John Muckler that brought another burgeoning star (Marian Hossa(notes)) back to the Thrashers.
Since that early trial-by-fire, Don Waddell's history has been mixed to say the least. His supporters cite ownership issues and a lack of monetary freedom to make the moves he's needed to make to turn the Thrashers into a contender. Waddell has even made some shrewd moves; most recently picking up Pavel Kubina(notes) from Toronto, and plucking Rich Peverley(notes) from the waiver wire.
His detractors point quickly to busted trades (Braydon Coburn(notes) for Alexei Zhitnik(notes)!), busted draft picks (Patrik Stefan!), and busted negotiations with big name players (Marc Savard(notes)! Marian Hossa! Ilya Kovalchuk(notes)!). Alas, Thrashers' fans won't have Donny Waddell to kick around anymore, proving that anything less than success won't let you stay employed in one place forever...
...sometimes it gets you promoted.
Dany Heatley (LW) & Dan Snyder (C)
Going into the 2003-2004 NHL season, things were looking up for the young Thrashers. Three years of predictable expansion-team records had netted the Thrashers Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Kari Lehtonen(notes). Entering the 2003-04 season, Heatley and Kovalchuk were already building their reputations as offensive powerhouses: between the two of them, they netted 79 goals in the previous campaign. The Thrashers were suiting up for their first full season under Stanley-Cup winning head coach Bob Hartley, and excitement was building.
As a Thrashers fan, it's difficult to write about the night of September 29, 2003. It takes the game you love, play, flippantly argue about, make beer-bets over, and puts a tragic millstone around its neck. A reminder of human fragility and mortality, intruding upon the game we so often use as our escape.
Dan Snyder and Dany Heatley were on two sides of the hockey spectrum, and maybe that's why they became close friends. Dan was an undrafted signing, had worked his way up through the IHL and AHL, and was now looking to stick with the Thrashers. Heatley was a number one draft choice and an NHL All-Star Game MVP.
Whatever your feelings for Heatley and the aftermath of the accident, there's no doubt both left indelible marks on the Atlanta Thrashers franchise. Dany Heatley wanted out, and was sent to Ottawa, permanently changing the direction and chemistry of the Thrashers.
Dan Snyder's parents continue to honor his memory by awarding scholarships and building ice rinks, and Dan's name lives on in the Dan Snyder Memorial Trophy, given by the Thrashers organization to the player who "best embodies perseverance, dedication and hard work without reward or recognition, so that his teammates might succeed."
Ilya Kovalchuk, LW
Kovalchuk was the face of the franchise since his selection first overall in 2001 up through the trade that saw him depart to the greener pastures of the Garden State this past February.
He and Dany Heatley were a one-two scoring punch on an otherwise anemic team. After the loss of Heatley, the franchise's focus shifted solely onto Kovalchuk.
He is more than just a face that was on billboards, though, and more than the 50-goal scorer that the team came to rely on. He became a metaphor for the team. Sharp when he wanted to play outstanding hockey, Kovalchuk can be just as lackadaisical when it comes to defensive responsibilities -- which sums up the Thrashers attack-first game plan of much of the franchise's history.
Easily frustrated and just frustrating to watch at times -- much like the team for the past decade -- Kovalchuk's name still populates the jerseys in Philips Arena, and is written in the franchise's thin record books in many categories. His photos are still up in some parts of the arena, mostly around the press box. Many capture him arms raised, surrounded by teammates, after a goal. There's one photograph of a young Kovalchuk that shows such promise and enthusiasm for the team and his teammates that it's heartbreaking to look at, knowing full well what would happen.
Kovalchuk did not want to wait to see things through with the strong crop of youngsters coming up; he wanted to play for a contender and draw major cash. Instead of playing for the Cup, he helped the team that he left -- getting them the picks that were included in the trade for the new ThrashHawks. He also added to the team's blueline with Johnny Oduya(notes), and gave the Thrashers another young gun in the guise of Niclas Bergfors(notes).
As Kovalchuk sits, waiting to see what the newest chapter in his career will be, the Thrashers have already embarked on their new path. The future is bright and the enthusiasm is high for the franchise -- higher than I can ever remember it being when Kovalchuk was here.
We have him to partially thank for it. Thrashers fans'll be waiting to welcome him back to Blueland regardless of what team he plays for. It just probably won't be the welcome he'd expect.
Or maybe it is.
(BWA note - that photo's from before pre-game warmups began, not during the game. So ha.)