For many years, ice hockey was a sport confined to the colder climates of North America for obvious reasons. However, starting in the years just after World War II, it became easier to play the game indoors. Soon after that, many folks began fleeing frigid cities for warmer communities in the West and South. It was at that time the notion of placing pro teams in cities where it rarely if ever snowed began to take shape.
Los Angeles was the first warm-weather city to receive a pro hockey team in the form of the Kings, who joined the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1967. Also in 1967, the not-quite-as-balmy, but still warm, Oakland, California, welcomed a team called the Seals. Both teams struggled on the ice and at the gate for many years. The Seals finally gave up in 1978 and moved to Cleveland to become the Barons.
In 1972, a rival league was started to compete with the NHL. The World Hockey Association (WHA) debuted with 12 teams, including one in Los Angeles called the Sharks. That same year, the South received its first major-league hockey team, the Atlanta Flames, who joined the NHL with the New York Islanders. Those two teams were established partially as a way to thwart the WHA, who also had a team in New York. The new league also eyed Miami, Florida, before its inaugural season but moved the franchise that was scheduled to play there to Philadelphia.
The Flames skated for eight seasons in Atlanta but had a difficult time catching on as it were, despite reaching the playoffs in six of those campaigns. Their overall record in the postseason was 2 and 15, and they never made it out of the first round. The 1973-74 season was their best at the gate as an average of 14,000 fans came through the turnstiles. By 1980, it was down to 10,000. In May of 1980, the team was sold to a consortium in Calgary. They relocated the team to Alberta for the 1980-81 season. Keeping the nickname, they became the Calgary Flames.
A new team comes to town
In 1992, the International Hockey League (IHL), one of two leagues playing at the sport's second-tier, welcomed an expansion franchise called the Atlanta Knights. The new team played at the Omni Arena, the former home of the Flames.
The Knights made the playoffs four years in a row, winning the Turner Cup, the IHL championship, in just their second season. They were also notable for employing the first female goalie in pro hockey history, Manon Rheaume (above). After playing in an exhibition game for the team’s NHL parent club the Tampa Bay Lightning, Rheaume made her regular season debut for the Knights in a game against the Salt Lake City Eagles.
The team averaged 8,000 fans a game but became victims of their success. The NHL soon became interested in placing a team in the city once again, provided a new arena was built. The Knights soon packed up for Quebec to become the Rafales.
The Atlanta Thrashers, named for Georgia’s state bird, debuted on October 2, 1999, at home in the brand new Philips Arena, against the New Jersey Devils. The home team lost 4 to 2. They played 11 seasons in the Georgia capital. It would have been 12, but a labor dispute canceled the 2004-05 season.
Only once in their 11 seasons did the Thrashers qualify for the playoffs. That was in 2006-07. They were swept out in the first round by the New York Rangers. The team soldiered on for four more seasons, bleeding red ink as attendance steadily declined. During the 2006-07 season, the team averaged just over 16,000 fans a game. By the 2010-11 season, its average attendance had fallen to 13,400. Rumors swirled constantly that the team would be sold and, likely, moved.
Those rumors were confirmed in spring 2011 when the team was purchased by True North Sports & Entertainment. That group moved the team to Manitoba to create the second incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. The original Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996.
The Gladiators make it a two hockey team town
In 2003, minor league hockey returned to the Greater Atlanta area with the arrival of the former Mobile Mysitcks of the ECHL (formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League). Renamed the Gwinnett Gladiators, the team set up shop in suburban Duluth, located in Gwinnett County. They became the Thrashers farm team until their NHL partner flew the coop for Canada.
After that, the team had relationships with Chicago, Phoenix, Buffalo, and Columbus. In 2015, the team became known as the Atlanta Gladiators and signed on as the minor league affiliate of the Boston Bruins. Its peak attendance (so far) came during the 2004-05 season when they drew over 6,000 fans a game. Oddly, this was when the Thrashers were still playing downtown.
Attendance for the Gladiators has dwindled over the years. In 2020, right before the global pandemic shuttered all spectator sports, the team was a game over .500. They were drawing 4,000 fans a game. Like many of the league’s teams, they chose to take the 2020-21 season off and plan to return for 2021-22.
Atlanta is the only city to receive, and lose, two NHL teams. It is unlikely the league will ever return to the ATL. Even though teams in other warm-weather cities do well, Atlanta just can’t seem to get that combination of competitive talent and a loyal following sorted.
While teams in sunny places like Los Angeles, Anaheim, Phoenix, Dallas, Tampa, and Miami manage to draw fans, Atlanta, where it has been known to snow on occasion, has failed to create a big enough fanbase to support a team. Meanwhile, there are cities up north that would love to be in the NHL, or in some cases, back in the league.