Ho-hum, no hockey

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

Impervious to the framed Tim Ecclestone Atlanta Flames jersey that hangs on the wall above their heads, two good ol' boys sitting at the bar are locked in a heated debate.

"I like how the Jackets are building the team," a heavy-set, middle-aged man says with a distinct southern drawl, waving an accusing finger at his buddy. "They're heading in the right direction."

"Y'all got to be kiddin'," the second man responds, shaking his head in disbelief. "They're overrated."

If this were Canada, the subject du jour very well could be the trials and tribulations of the fledgling Columbus Blue Jackets. But on this beautiful sun-splashed afternoon, pucks are the furthest thing on the minds of these two patrons.

Instead, the team in question here is the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets football team.

Here at TJ's Sports Bar and Grill, where each of the 70-plus television sets are tuned into some sort of sporting broadcast, hockey is nothing more than an afterthought.

Located just a 35-minute drive north of downtown Atlanta, TJ's is the pride and joy of Ecclestone, who enjoyed a respectable career with four teams, including the Maple Leafs, from the late 1960s through the mid-70s.

On any given day you might find Ecclestone -- aka the owner of the joint -- yukking it up with the likes of Dan Bouchard and Eric Vail, his former teammates with the Flames. When the Flames franchise relocated to Calgary more than two decades ago, these men opted to remain in the Atlanta suburbs where they happily planted their roots.

"The problem is, there is far too much to do here in the fall," Ecclestone said. "NFL, NASCAR, college football, baseball, the start of NBA training camps, these are the things that are on the minds of people here right now.

"This area can sustain hockey. I have no doubt about that. When the Flames left it wasn't because of a lack of fan support. We were still getting 12,000 per game. It was an ownership decision.

"The Thrashers have done a great job in this market. The trouble is, this isn't like Canada where fans probably will flock back once the (lockout) is done. Here, the Thrashers likely will have to rebuild a portion of the fan base again."

At least the Thrashers have an edge over many of the teams located in the Sun Belt. Having two of the game's most electrifying players in Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk allows general manager Don Waddell to market two marquee names whenever the NHL resumes.

LENGTHY WORK STOPPAGE

Unfortunately, franchises such as Nashville and Carolina do not have that luxury, causing many to wonder if they'll be able to survive a lengthy work stoppage.

In a week in which the NHL's regular season was supposed to begin, fan indifference appears to be spreading throughout the southern U.S. Instead of arguing whether the players or owners are at fault, people simply don't seem to care.

"This town has no idea that there is an NHL lockout right now," said Chris Cotter, who hosts an afternoon sports talk show on WQXI-AM in Atlanta. "Right now, with the Falcons and University of Georgia doing well and the Braves having been in the playoffs, hockey is out of sight, out of mind.

"In the summer we'd get about two or three calls per week asking about the pending hockey lockout. But once football started up last month, nothing."

Waddell, whose Thrashers were to play their season opener tomorrow, admits the casual hockey fan in Atlanta might not be focussed on the NHL's labour wars at this time.

"But now that the Braves have been eliminated from the post-season, I think they will be more aware of what is going on a couple of weeks down the road," he said. "And we do have a supportive group of hard core fans who know what is going on."

Waddell feels the lack of coverage concerning the labour dispute actually sparked season-ticket sales.

More than 1,000 subscriptions were snapped up during the off-season, the most since the Thrashers' inaugural season. Thirty more were purchased last month, even after the owners had declared they would lock out the players.

The Thrashers hold another advantage over the Predators and Hurricanes of the world in that hockey has actually become a popular participation sport in north-central Georgia.

Team officials estimate that about 3,000 kids are playing ice hockey in the Atlanta area, while another 5,000 are involved in in-line hockey.

The area's minor hockey system, which receives strong financial and teaching support from the Thrashers, already has produced one sparkling prospect in David Caruso, the starting goaltender at Ohio State. A handful of others are poised to follow his footsteps into the U.S. college ranks.

Ecclestone and his friends have done their part. During a recent NHL alumni golf tournament they raised about $20,000 US for the area's youth hockey leagues.

SOMETHING'S WRONG

Through it all, he wonders how the NHL ever allowed itself to get into this mess.

"Listen, I've been running a business since 1978 and I know I'm the last guy to get paid," Ecclestone said. "As a businessman, if you can't survive after that, something's wrong.

"That's why I wonder what's going on in hockey. If you fill the rink every night and still lose millions, there is a real problem."

But the Thrashers feel they can survive. Unfortunately, many of the other Sun Belt teams can't make that claim.


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