A Move Eight Years in the Making?
Posted By: Aaron Sims
I was hired to be the play-by-play announcer for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team on Wisconsin Public Television in 2003. I was ecstatic. I always wanted to do hockey at a big-time level and I was getting that opportunity. Plus, I was going to work with head coach Mike Eaves.
I didn’t know much about Eaves as a person. I only knew him as a hockey player, specifically for my beloved Minnesota North Stars. I was hired without having spent much time with him, although we had met on a couple occasions.
He wanted to meet with me and find out who I was and what made me tick. He asked about my family, what I enjoyed in my spare time, etc. It was a fruitful meeting that I will always cherish. I remember the day of the meeting: Sept. 29, 2003. I remember that date because it’s the same day former UW star Dany Heatley was injured in a car accident in Atlanta that killed teammate Dan Snyder.
I bring this up today because I wonder if the Thrashers would have been sold and moved to Winnipeg if the crash doesn’t happen.
Heatley missed the majority of the 2003-04 season with the injuries he sustained in that accident. Still, in just 31 games, he placed seventh on the team with 13 goals. In his three seasons in Atlanta, he scored 80 goals in 190 games (.42 per game).
Prior to the end of the lockout in 2005, Heatley asked to be traded from Atlanta in hopes of leaving the accident behind. This was unpopular with Atlanta fans. The Thrashers and Snyder’s family had both been supportive of Heatley during the ordeal and his trial.
The Thrashers accommodated Heatley’s request and he was sent to Ottawa for Marian Hossa and Greg DeVries. Heatley promptly signed a three-year, $13.5 million contract with the Sens. Hossa had just signed a three-year, $18 million deal with Ottawa prior to the trade.
Hossa was an outstanding player for the Thrashers, scoring 248 points in 222 games before he was dealt to Pittsburgh. A free agent-to-be, it was believed Hossa would never re-sign with the Thrashers, so Atlanta moved him for a package of players from the Penguins.
In the meantime, Heatley (playing with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza) put up dazzling numbers with the Senators. In those three seasons (05-06 thru 07-08) Heatley tallied 290 points in 235 games.
The two best seasons in Thrashers history occurred with Hossa in the lineup for the entire season. In 2005-06, the team had a .549 points percentage. The following year it was .591 and the team made its only postseason appearance.
Let’s get hypothetical…
Heatley’s numbers are slightly better than Hossa’s in that span. So we’ll call that a wash. Let’s assume (it may be a stretch) that since the numbers are close, the record would have been about the same.
Heatley was really the team’s first superstar. He won the Calder trophy in 2001-02, beating out teammate Ilya Kovalchuk. Certainly, he was a player the franchise could point to…their Rick Nash or Shea Weber, if you will. He and Kovalchuk were two of the most exciting young players in the game. That toothless grin of Heatley’s when he was named the MVP of the 2003 All-Star game only added to his appeal.
Hossa is two years and nine days older than Heatley, who turned 30 in January.
At the time Heatley and Hossa signed their respective contracts, Heatley’s was less expensive by $1.5 million per year, on average. Certainly, that money could have been used on at least one quality free agent.
The team made its first playoff appearance in 2007. With Heatley and Kovalchuk, two great young stars, a Stanley Cup winning coach (Bob Hartley) and a warm climate, Atlanta could have been a destination for free agents.
At the conclusion of the 2007-08 campaign, when Heatley’s deal was up, the attendance for a winning team would have caused the owner, Atlanta Spirit, to keep a good thing together. Heatley, by now a major sports personality in Atlanta, re-signs and Atlanta continues its winning ways.
While Atlanta has missed on some players in the draft (Boris Valabik, Alex Bourret), the team has hit pretty well on its first-rounders: Heatley, Kovalchuk, Kari Lehtonen, Bryan Little, Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane and Alexander Burmistrov. The year Bourret was the team’s first pick, goalie Ondrej Pavelec was its second. The team also found a late-round gem in 2003 with Tobias Enstrom.
Last year, the trade that landed Dustin Byfuglien, among others, was a great deal.
Yes, this is hypothetical, but perhaps I'm not too far off base. We’ll never know.
What is known…Atlanta had to dump Heatley, Hossa and Kovalchuk. Those are the three best players in the history of the franchise.
While all three have continued to shine as stars of the NHL, the Thrashers had to be sold and moved to Winnipeg.
I love the fact Winnipeg has a team. I can’t help but think this has been in the making since Sept. 29, 2003.