I know Atlanta has always been knocked for its paucity of fans and its awful attendance records, regardless if its teams are winning or losing. It’s all true. But I’ve also realized it’s the only large commercial city in the Southeast and thus home to many Fortune 500 companies and their legions of migratory workers. So while originally I thought it was strange how half the people I met here seemed to be from elsewhere, I now understand Atlanta is largely a city of transients. People come here often only because they were sent here and those from Atlanta don't have the generational sports roots like other big American cities do. It’s also a place that developed and grew in size/population very rapidly without much forward thinking or logical urban planning. So the sprawl is enormous, the traffic is unbearable, and the roads lead you in circles. None of this helps bring fans to the games. Moreover, it’s just not a great place for a rabid fan base to exist. No one lives downtown, there’s nowhere near the stadium that’s fun to go to before or after a game, and the racial/demographic divide is big enough that it makes it difficult to meld all the different groups together into one collective fan base.
The result is a majority of indifferent sports fans, a minority of Atlanta superfans, and a consistent cluster of fans from the opposing team on any given night. For example, I was shocked by the amount of Pens fans at the Thrashers game last night. Literally in the hundreds and highly visible and audible. But I’m happy for them because I too have reveled in being a Leafs/Raptors/Jays fan living in Atlanta, where I can show up an hour before the game, buy a ticket for $10-15, watch warm-ups from the first few rows, and basically sit wherever I want throughout the game.
Honestly, there’s a lot of upside to being a displaced “general sports fan" in Atlanta. I could never watch Crosby and Malkin back home for so cheap and in such close view. I plan to do the same with guys like Ovechkin or the young Blackhawks in the new year. And I want to see in person what makes teams like the Sharks, Bruins, and Red Wings so good. The same with the NBA – hook me up with some LeBron, D-Wade, CP3, or the TrailBlazers. Basically it’s kinda fun and certainly interesting being a neutral fan at live games. Of course I prefer the heckling and rare moments of jubilation at the ACC, but at least for downtrodden skeptics like me, it’s nice sometimes to just watch a game and not have to yell at everyone not named Bosh or Calderon for 48 minutes.
As for the game itself, I thought the Thrashers played better than they fared. They dictated the flow of the game in the first period, outshot the Pens throughout, and had more overall scoring chances. The difference – the Pens powerplay and great play from Fleury vs. horrible from Pavelic. There’s just no equivalent to goaltending in basketball – if you play poorly you can still win in hockey because your goalie can bail you out. A sloppy game in which you’re outplayed, outhustled, and outrebounded always results in a loss in basketball even if your best player scores 50. Basketball teams can’t overcome overall mediocre talent the way hockey teams can. That’s why I agree with Richie’s last post – BC needs to get off his ass and make some moves.
Back to hockey, the Thrashers are not even mediocre talent. Guys with names like Jim Slater, Eric Perrin, Colby Armstrong, Todd White, and Joey Crabb do not instill any fear whatsoever in me. They sound like Home Depot employees or high school phys-ed teachers. Take that into consideration Mr. Burke before you assign too much trust to the Dominic Moores, John Mitchells, Jeremy Williams, and even our beloved Ian Whites of the team. I do love watching Kovalchuk play though. He literally gives you a jolt each time he takes it from behind his own net and starts accelerating up ice. On the last play of the first period, I had predicted a coast to coast goal but it trickled just a few inches wide. He was the most exciting player in the game, followed by Malkin whose creativity and puck skills outshone Sid’s by a mile in this one. Can the Leafs free Kovy from the Thrashers (or as the guys behind me said, ‘they should just rename them the Thrashed’)?
Finally, a congrats to the Raptors for being outrebounded in 14 of their last 15 games. So much for our supposed clear advantage and dominating that part of the game. How is it that the Hawks and their 6’8” mafia are a better rebounding team? Oh yea, they have guys who can actually run and jump and play the wings. Like I said, it’s refreshing to be a neutral spectator sometimes.