That’s two strikes against the NHL in Atlanta, but something tells me, with a big ol’ southern “Bless your heart” and a thinly veiled condescending grin, that there won’t ever be a third attempt.
The city in an untraditional hockey market got its second go-around with the NHL when the Atlanta Thrashers became the league’s 28th team through expansion in 1997. By the 1999-2000 season, pro hockey had returned to the ice in the Peach State, and they averaged a pretty decent 17,206 fans per game during that first year.
The team was doomed, though, the second that its first owners, Time Warner, sold it to Atlanta Spirit, LLC. I won’t get into the nasty, political details of the whole drawn-out ordeal with a bungling ownership group that never wanted the team in the first place, other than to say that their lack of dedication or structure and complete disregard for the team caused fan attendance to plummet over the years and put a bad taste in the mouths of the already limited number of hockey fans in the ATL.
Throughout years of front-office turmoil, the Thrashers’ on-ice product was equally as bad. In 11 seasons, they made one single playoff appearance and only three times had winning seasons.
The players hated being there too. There was no chemistry, no passion and no motivation to perform for owners and fans that couldn’t care less about them. There were some notable names to suit up for the Thrash, but for the most part, guys got out of Dodge at the first opportunity they got.
Here are 15 of those former Atlanta Thrashers players and a look at what they’re up to today.
15 Marc Savard
Due to a debilitating bout with post-concussion syndrome, feisty, high-flying forward Marc Savard has been absent from the NHL since the 2010-11 season. He was at the top of his game when massive hits in successive seasons likely brought his pro career to an early halt, though he hasn’t yet officially retired just yet.
Before his injuries, Savard spent time with the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames before being traded to the Thrashers early in the 2002-03 season. On a line with stars Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk, Savard had better than point-per-game numbers and finished second on the team with 97 points during the 2005-06 season.
Savard spent his final five seasons in Boston while battling his physical challenges. In his life after hockey, Savard has tried his hand at professional golf and helps coach minor youth hockey in Ontario. He’s still in a constant state of rehab from his brain-ravaging incidents, but he’s been able to spend plenty of time with his family while still under contract with the New Jersey Devils.
14 Blake Wheeler
The Boston Bruins traded big forward Blake Wheeler to the Atlanta Thrashers just prior to the 2011 trade deadline, but he only appeared in 23 games there near the end of the 2010-11 season before he moved with the team when they were sold and relocated to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season.
That first year as a Jet, Wheeler led the team in scoring with what was then a career-best 64 points on 17 goals and 47 assists. Since then, Wheeler has put his brief Atlanta days behind him and is still tearing it up in the NHL. He has posted at least 61 points in every non-lockout season since moving to Winnipeg and was named team captain prior to the start of this season. At just 30, he’s got plenty of good hockey left to play.
13 Ray Ferraro
It wasn’t until the latter stages of his 18-year career that Ray Ferraro signed with the Atlanta Thrashers. Providing needed veteran leadership to the fledgling expansion club in its first few years of existence, Ferraro finished second in scoring in 1999-2000 and then led the team with 76 points in his second season there.
After most of a third year in a Thrashers uniform, Ferraro was traded to the St. Louis Blues in March of 2002, where he played 15 more games and then retired.
In his life after hockey, Ferraro has worked as a broadcaster and analyst for ESPN, NBC and Sportsnet and is currently employed in the same role for TSN. He lives with his wife, Cammi Granato, a former U.S. Women’s Hockey team captain and broadcaster herself, in Vancouver.
12 Johnny Oduya
After 3 ½ seasons to start his NHL career with the New Jersey Devils, the Swedish-born Johnny Oduya was part of the 2010 blockbuster trade that sent Thrashers star Ilya Kovalchuk, to the Devils. Then 28 and having some decent success in his short time in the league, Oduya’s numbers suffered over the one full season and change he spent in Atlanta.
After moving to Winnipeg with the relocation, Oduya was traded to the Blackhawks at the 2012 trade deadline and won championships there in 2013 and 2015.
After three full seasons in Chicago, he signed with Dallas in 2015 but was traded back to Chicago at this year’s trade deadline. This season has been a tough one for him, though, as he has under performed and battled injury. He’ll be a free agent in the summer, so his future is a little in doubt.
11 Mark Recchi
Mark Recchi’s lengthy and itinerant NHL career took him to seven different cities, including multiple stints in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Along the way, between his third stretch with the Penguins and his brief time with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he suited up for the Atlanta Thrashers for the last half of the 2007-08 season after the Pens put him on waivers in December.
In 53 games there, he notched 12 goals and 28 assists, including the game-winning shootout goal in the first game against his former Penguins team the very next month.
After finishing his career in Boston by winning this third Stanley Cup title in 2011, Recchi joined the Dallas Stars organization as a consultant but is now back with the Penguins as their player development coach and was a part of last year’s Cup-winning effort.
10 Chris Kunitz
Penguins forward Chris Kunitz went undrafted out of Ferris State University in 2003 but signed with the Anaheim Ducks organization in April of that year. He spent the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons splitting time between Anaheim and their AHL club, the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, but was then picked up off the waiver wire by Atlanta at the beginning of the 2005-06 season.
After just two games with the Thrashers in which he served two penalty minutes and turned in a -3 plus/minus rating, Kunitz was reclaimed off waivers by the Ducks and ended up playing 67 games there that season, breaking Paul Kariya’s record of 39 points as a rookie with 41 of his own.
Since then, Kunitz has won a Cup with the Ducks and two with the Penguins and is currently serving as an alternate captain in Pittsburgh as they try to win their second title in as many seasons.
9 Keith Tkachuk
You know Keith Tkachuk’s name best for his long and successful stints with the Winnipeg Jets/Arizona Coyotes and St. Louis Blues franchises, but he actually played 18 games at the end of the 2006-07 season as a rental player when the Thrashers won the Southeast Division and made their one and only postseason appearance.
With Atlanta looking for a boost as they entered the 2007 playoffs, they acquired Tkachuk in exchange for Glen Metropolit and a few draft picks. In the Thrashers’ four playoff games against the Rangers, Tkachuk had a goal and two assists, along with 12 penalty minutes.
The Blues reacquired Tkachuk later that offseason, and he went on to play three more years there, becoming one of just five American-born players to score 500 goals and the sixth American to surpass the 1,000-point plateau.
These days, Tkachuk lives in St. Louis and stays involved in the St. Louis AAA Blues youth hockey program and serves as a part-time amateur scout for the NHL Blues. He’s also an investor in a local sports talk radio station.
8 Kari Lehtonen
When he went second overall to the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2002 draft, Kari Lehtonen became the highest-drafted European goaltender and the highest-drafted Finnish-born player in the history of the NHL. He spent most of his first year in the U.S. with the Thrashers’ AHL affiliate in Chicago, but in his four starts for the Thrash, he went 4-0, with one shutout and posted a 1.25 GAA and a .953 save percentage.
The next four seasons in Atlanta would be full of injury for Lehtonen, but he did manage to become the all-time wins leader for the team and finished his time there with a 94-83-0-17 record and 14 shutouts in games.
He was traded to the Stars in 2010, and he’s been there ever since. This year, he’s having a pretty mediocre season between the pipes and is under contract through next season.
7 Chris Chelios
After a prolific 25-year career in the NHL as one of the most accomplished defensemen in the league during his time with the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, Chris Chelios hadn’t had enough. At 47 years old, Chelios signed a professional tryout with the AHL Chicago Wolves in 2009. He then agreed to a two-way contract with the Thrashers later that season and became easily the oldest active NHL player and second-oldest in the history of the league to suit up in a game when Atlanta called him up for seven games in 2010 at the ripe old age of 48.
He didn’t manage to score any points during his brief time with the Thrashers, but he did create some media hype, so at least he had that going for him. He finally called it quits after that season and joined the Red Wings’ front office as an advisor to the management staff. He’s now an assistant coach with the team and has also dabbled in hockey broadcasting with Fox Sports 1.
6 Dustin Byfuglien
Minnesota-born Dustin Byfuglien was taken with the 245th selection in the 2003 draft by the Chicago Blackhawks and spent his first three professional seasons splitting time between the ‘Hawks and their AHL affiliate, Norfolk.
In his first full season with the Blackhawks in 2008-09, he posted 31 points while playing as a forward and then helped the team win the Stanley Cup the following season, scoring 16 points in the postseason after playing in all 82 regular season games.
He was traded to the Thrashers during the 2010 offseason and played one full season there, finishing second in points in his natural defenseman position with 20 goals and 33 assists. From there, he moved with the team to Winnipeg and signed a five-year, $38 million contract extension just last year to remain with the team through the 2021-22 season.
5 Vyacheslav Kozlov
Vyacheslav Kozlov’s notoriety as a skilled NHL winger arose during his years with the Detroit Red Wings as a part of the Russian Five unit that helped them win Stanley Cups late in the 1990s. After 10 seasons in the ‘Wings’ organization, Kozlov was traded to the Buffalo Sabres in the deal that sent goaltender Dominik Hasek to Detroit.
After just a single season in Buffalo, Kozlov was dealt to the Thrashers, where he would spend seven seasons as one of the franchise’s all-time greatest players.
When the Thrashers declined to re-sign him after the 2009-10 season, Kozlov elected to return to his native Russia, where he played for five more seasons in the KHL before retiring in 2015. Nowadays he keeps pretty quiet but does a good deal of traveling to visit with his family in different parts of the world.
4 Evander Kane
Another early first-round draft pick of the Thrashers, Evander Kane made his NHL debut in Atlanta during the 2009-10 season, scoring 14 goals and 12 assists in 66 games. He followed that up with a sophomore season in which he had 43 points in 73 games to go along with a couple of injuries that slowed down his highly anticipated offensive potential.
He became a Jet when the team relocated to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season and has ever since underperformed as a highly skilled goal-scorer on the left wing while having multiple run-ins with the law.
These days, he’s a mediocre forward toiling away in Buffalo with the Sabres. His contract expires after the conclusion of next season when the Vancouver native turns 27.
3 Dany Heatley
Dany Heatley won Rookie of the Year honors as a member of the Atlanta Thrashers in 2002 after the team took him second overall in the draft two years earlier. That first season saw him score 67 points, leading the team by 16 more than second-highest scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk.
He followed that season up with a team-high 89 points in 2002-03, good for ninth in the league, but when he was indicted on six charges after he was behind the wheel in a car crash in Atlanta that killed his teammate Dan Snyder in September of 2003, Heatley only appeared in 31 games for the 2003-04 season.
Near the end of the locked-out 2004-05 season, Heatley asked for and was granted a trade, ending his ruined stint in Atlanta, and he went on to play for the Senators, Sharks, Wild and Ducks.
After parts of two seasons in the AHL, Heatley signed with a pro team in Germany and currently holds dual Canadian-German citizenzship. Last reports about him were that he was planning to play in Finland, but it’s been a year since then, and with no news since, it’s anyone’s guess what he’s up to these days.
2 Marian Hossa
Thirty-eight-year-old Marian Hossa is one of the game’s top wingers, and it’s been that way ever since his NHL debut with the Ottawa Senators in 1997-98. He played his first seven NHL seasons in the Senators organization and then joined the Thrashers after the 2004-05 lockout via the trade that sent Dany Heatley to Ottawa.
In his first season in Atlanta, Hossa scored a career-high 92 points and then followed that up with a 100-point output the very next year, which will forever stand as the Thrashers’ highest point total in a single season.
At the trade deadline the following year, Hossa was traded to the Penguins. He then went on to play a season in Detroit before signing a 12-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009 that will take him through the 2020-21 season.
1 Ilya Kovalchuk
One of the longest-tenured Thrashers players, Ilya Kovalchuk spent eight seasons in Atlanta after they took him first-overall in the 2001 draft. He was one of the few superstars the team ever had before he was traded to the New Jersey Devils in 2010.
During his time in Atlanta, Kovalchuk won the “Rocket” Richard Trophy with 41 goals in 2003-04, made three All-Star Games and led the league in power-play goals in 2005-06 with 27. He had 594 points in 615 games with the Thrashers and never finished with fewer than 51 points there.
After Kovalchuk completed just three years of his massive 15-year, $100 million deal with the Devils in 2013, he retired from the NHL and returned to Russia to play in the KHL.
He’s currently in his fourth season with St. Petersburg SKA and led the team in the regular season with 78 points in 60 games but is reportedly interested in an NHL comeback, maybe with Vegas.
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