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Georgians taking to the ice in droves

by Dan Rosen /

Atlanta Thrashers GM/coach Don Waddell is excited
that the team's growing fanbase will get a chance to experience the All-Star weekend festivities firsthand.
Atlanta already had NHL bloodlines thanks to the Flames’ former residency, but in 1997, when the League awarded the city another expansion franchise, the market basically was devoid of passionate puckheads.

“We had to treat it as a brand new hockey market,” Thrashers General Manager/coach Don Waddell told “The NHL had been out of here since 1980, so we had to reintroduce the NHL game to the fans. Our grassroots push was such an important part, and it still is.”

So far it has been a raging success.

Atlanta, which was awarded its second NHL franchise on June 25, 1997, is turning into a bustling hockey community. Later this month it will be on display for the rest of the world as it rolls out the red carpet for the NHL All-Star Game.

All-Star Weekend, from Jan. 24-27, is when Atlanta finally will be able to show how far it has come in the hockey world since the Thrashers dropped the first puck at Phillips Arena, on Oct. 2, 1999.

“It’s major now,” said Al Blevins, the general manager of the Duluth Ice Forum, where the Thrashers practice. “In the seven years I’ve been here it has grown immensely.”

The professional team and its community have developed at the same pace.

The Thrashers, buoyed by winning the 2001 NHL Draft lottery and selecting Russian sensation Ilya Kovalchuk made the playoffs last season by winning the Southeast Division title, both firsts in franchise history.

Kovalchuk currently leads the NHL with 33 goals and Atlanta is second in the Southeast Division with 41 points after an 0-6 start to the season and the removal of coach Bob Hartley.

“The day that we won the (Draft) lottery was the biggest day of this franchise,” Waddell said. “It’s very rare that you get the opportunity to get that kind of player. The offers I was turning down, some people thought I was crazy, but you only had one opportunity to get a player of this quality. It was challenging those first few years keeping those picks and those young players, knowing one day there would be a payback.”

The Thrashers also have created quite a hockey stir in the Atlanta community.

In the last dozen years three rinks have gone up north of the city, bringing the total in the Atlanta area to four. The Marietta Ice Center is the oldest of the bunch.

Yan Kaminsky, a former NHL player with the Winnipeg Jets and New York Islanders and now the hockey director at the Ice Forums in Duluth and Kennesaw, said involvement at the youth level nearly has tripled since the Thrashers’ inception.

The Georgia Student Hockey League, which strictly is for high schools and has USA Hockey accreditation, also has more than doubled in the past 10 years, to 22 teams.

“We probably have 800-900 members that are youth hockey players, and that’s just for our program between the two rinks. There are probably about 2,500-3,000 members of youth hockey programs overall,” Kaminsky said. “In the south, those are pretty good numbers.”

So good, in fact, that there now is a need for more ice.

“The rinks are all competing against each other, and it’s good competition,” Kaminsky said. “We don’t have any room to grow. We’re maxed out. We need more rinks.”

The competition also has soared, and now the area is producing some fine talents, including goalie Dave Caruso, who became the first Atlanta-trained player to play NCAA Division I hockey after graduating from Roswell (Ga.) High School.

Caruso spent his entire youth hockey career in the Atlanta area after moving with his family from New York at age 7. He played 96 games for Ohio State from 2002-06, and now is the starting goalie for the Trenton Devils of the ECHL, his second professional season after playing in the Thrashers organization last year.

“When the Thrashers first arrived we really didn’t have a big hockey program. We did well, but not to the extent of what it is now,” Caruso said. “Now they have quite a few Double-A teams and one Triple-A down there with some house leagues and four rinks. It has really grown a lot and the Thrashers have really made great strides in helping out the youth hockey in the area.”

The Thrashers have developed their first bona-
fide superstar in forward Ilya Kovalchuk, who
they selected first overall in the 2001 Draft.

Caruso came from the Atlanta Fire Hockey Club, a Tier-2 program out of The Cooler rink. Recent Fire alumni include Georgia natives Brad Miller from Alpharetta, and Vinny and Victor Saponari, who are from Powder Springs.

Miller currently is a junior forward at the University of North Dakota, while Victor Saponari is a freshman forward at Boston University. Vinny Saponari is one of the leading scorers on the U.S. National Team Development Program’s under-18 squad. He already has committed to BU, and could be a mid-to-late round selection at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

Bjorn Krupp, whose father is former NHL player Uwe Krupp, plays for the USNTD U-17 squad. He came from the TPH Thunder program, which plays out of the Duluth Ice Forum. The Thunder is the only area program with a USA Hockey AAA rating, but Marietta’s rink could be adding a Junior A team next year.

“They have better coaching now. There are guys down there like Uwe Krupp with NHL experience to help out the kids and give back to the community,” Caruso said. “The teams are now seeking out the northern competition a little bit more than what we did.

“They’re coming of age. I’m sure you’re going to hear a lot more about Atlanta hockey in the future.”

At the center of Atlanta’s hockey development has been the Thrashers.

“When they get the chance they bring pro hockey into our youth community,” Kaminsky said. “They’re always available for the clinics and even practices during the week, believe it or not. I played in the NHL, so I know how busy they are, but they love to step in. We have quite a few of the guys’ kids playing in our youth hockey leagues and they’re always on the ice helping with the coaches.”

Waddell believes the success of hockey in the community is linked to the Thrashers’ style. They’re an open-ice, free-skating team. They give up more goals than they want to, but they score in bunches, as well.

This season fans at Phillips Arena have been treated to an average of more than six goals per game, the most at any NHL arena.

“We have to win games, but we have to build a fan base and be entertaining,” Waddell said. “The style that we play is winning most games 5-4, 4-3. We’re going to give up chances that create goals, but we’re going to get them to create goals, too.

“This market has 4 million people, and we need to reach out to all the groups.”

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