Atlanta 'great city,' ex-Thrashers say

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:59 PM ET

ATLANTA -- Ilya Kovalchuk got booed by Thrashers fans when he touched the puck when the New Jersey Devils visited recently.

But the former Thrashers star, who was traded away at the deadline last year after he turned down a contract extension, had only good things to say about his former team, its fans and the city.

"If they sell (tickets) to people who care about hockey, I'm sure they will survive," Kovalchuk said of the Thrashers, who are for sale and could be headed for Winnipeg or Quebec if a local buyer isn't found.

"I don't know about Winnipeg. I don't think the guys (players) want to go because this is a great city. When we made the playoffs here a couple of years ago this city was buzzing. We sold out every game. At some point ownership has to do something."

Kovalchuk joined Dany Heatley as former Thrashers top picks who wound up playing somewhere else. Heatley asked for a trade following his car accident which saw teammate Dan Snyder killed.

Kovalchuk said he still has an emotional attachment to the city and the hockey club.

"I would like to come back here and play against them. Like I said, I have a lot of great memories from this city and I still have strong feelings for the team. I care about them," he said. "It would be difficult if they moved. I wouldn't be hurt, but I want them to do well. I remember the fans. They are really patient fans.

"They're very disappointed in the way they've been treated by ownership. The problem is not going to go away in one day."

Former Thrashers goaltender Johan Hedberg was here when the Thrashers were at their peak, selling out games down the stretch and making the playoffs for the only time in their existence.

"I've seen this market work," said Hedberg. "I was here my first year (2006-07) and we had a really, really good team. We made the playoffs and we had high expectations to make a good run at it and the building in the playoffs was electric.

"This is a market where, when other sports like football stop, you get more fans coming back leading up towards the spring. There is no doubt in my mind that this market could work, but it takes time to build up a fan base and it takes time to build the grass roots of hockey where people have to play hockey for a while. You just have to keep with it and grow. That's why I think it's going to be in years to come a very strong market."

The question is whether the Thrashers have that much time.

It's more like weeks, not years.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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