All is not well

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 1:20 PM ET

In Atlanta, after every home win, the Thrashers' player of the game meets one lucky fan at the Zamboni entrance and hands him a free one-year lease on a sporty Volvo S40.

In Florida, all the fans at the Panthers games drive home in the same car.

One of the biggest concerns during the whole NHL lockout was how those franchises in the southern U.S. would weather an 18-month labour storm. It was a concern everywhere, of course, except in the southern U.S., where they didn't even know hockey was gone, and in many cases still don't know it's back.

Gary Bettman might be bursting the buttons off that little vest of his upon news that attendance, revenue, the salary cap and everything else is going up, but post-lockout numbers in some of the non-traditional markets suggest all is not well.

Not unless it's considered progress when division-leading Carolina is drawing 11,000 a game (announced), or a visit by the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning this week drew just 12,286 in Anaheim, or Nashville is stuck around 11,000 and change.

Or that the Panthers, once a sold-out, rat-chucking Stanley Cup host, now boast all the atmosphere of a meat locker. Announced crowds have been in the 10,000 range, but estimates from those outside the Panthers organization are closer to 8,000 or 9,000.

"The team and the sport go away for a year, then six games into the season they start a 12-game losing streak,'' said David J. Neal, columnist and Panthers beat writer at the Miami Herald.

"There's all this hope built, with free agents and a new coach in Jacques Martin, and then it just got crushed. They went a month without a win. So it's been kind of a perfect storm for crummy attendance:they're coming off the lockout, having a lousy season, then hurricane Wilma hits, and the team is not very exciting.''

Failure is tough to overcome anywhere, and nearly impossible in cities where hockey is still considered a tacky tourist. That's why the Thrashers were so determined to make a splash when the lockout ended.

"With hockey not being the No. 1 sport in the city, we knew we had to have a plan,'' said Atlanta GM Don Waddell. "And we kind of came upon it by accident with the Dany Heatley trade. That got everyone's attention, getting not only sports coverage, but news coverage. It let everyone know that hockey was back.''

The Thrashers are averaging 14,997, but still have plenty of nights when crowds drop into the 12,000 range. It beats Nashville, Carolina and Florida, where 12,000 is considered a good night.

"Carolina is a first-place team, a very exciting team, I don't understand why it's been slow to take off there,'' said Waddell. "But after what we went through, in a market where hockey doesn't get much attention, we're pretty happy to be where we're at.''

Can anything help the Panthers, Canes and Preds? "I was in Edmonton those middle '90s years when economics were crushing the team,'' said Neal. "I remember some nights in that building when it was no different from Florida.''

Indeed. But in traditional markets with a born and bred fan base, they come back when the team is competitive and respectable.

It doesn't look like getting a few games over .500 will be enough in the NASCAR belt, where the Preds managed just 13,000 fans for their eighth-straight win to start the season. Division-leading Carolina had 11,069 (announced) to see its last home game.

"In Canada, hockey has been ingrained in us since we were born,'' said Steve Staios, who captained the Thrashers in 2000-2001. "But down in the States, especially the south, hockey is third or fourth on the depth chart. It takes time. The lockout didn't help those markets, obviously, but they'll catch on.''

Let's hope so, because there aren't enough transplanted Canadians down there to pick up the slack. "It reminds me of the old Jack Kent Cooke line when he owned the Kings,'' said Neal. "There's 800,000 Canadians in the L.A. area and now I know why they live here: they hate hockey.''

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THEY SAID IT

- "I'm really excited about the game, except when I watch my own team play.'' - Columbus GM Doug MacLean.

- "My confidence is shot. Trying to take a guy one-on-one, it's shot. Playing on the fourth line, it's shot. Sometimes, I think if I can't do any better than this, I might as well cash it in." - Kings Jeremy Roenick, changing his tune from a week ago when he said it would be a travesty if he wasn't on the U.S. Olympic team.

- "He had monkey arms." - Penguins enforcer Andre Roy on the Rangers Colton Orr, who fractured Roy's orbital bone with his surprisingly long reach.

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ICE T'S TOP FIVE

TOP FIVE EDMONTON OILERS CHRISTMAS GIFTS:

5 - Jani Rita: Popcorn flavouring. When you've been in the press box 13 of the last 14 games, snacks get a little boring.

4 - Ryan Smyth: The Best of Judas Priest. Nothing goes better with a mullet than an '80s metal band.

3 - Oilers media lounge: Actual food. Instead of the congealed road kill that just doubled in price.

2 - Igor Ulanov: A Green Jacket. At -8 he's been the clubhouse leader all season.

1 - Ales Hemsky: A trigger. We haven't seen anyone this reluctant to shoot since they took Old Yeller out behind the barn.

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ICE T'S TEAM OF THE WEEK

C - HENRIK SEDIN (CANUCKS): Seven points and plus-4 in a tidy little four-game stretch.

LW - ETHAN MOREAU (OILERS) He's plus-6 with three goals and three assists in the last four games.

RW - BRENDAN SHANAHAN (RED WINGS): Wings in a two-game slump, but Shanny has seven points in the last three.

RD - SHELDON SOURAY (CANADIENS): After a slow start, he's riding a three-game, four-assist streak.

LD - JAMIE HOWARD (CAPITALS): Three goals and four assists in his last four games.

G - MARTIN BIRON (SABRES): GAA and save percentage aren't great, but 11-straight wins trumps all.

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ICE T'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"Personally, I was always a Quebec Nordiques fan growing up, so it's no big deal.''

- Marc-Andre Bergeron on playing the Canadiens.


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