Lighting the Lamp
with Rick Ackerman
After two less-than-stellar outings at home against Vancouver and on the road at Winnipeg, both of which were bonus-hockey losses, the Blues were the ones doing the smashing at "Smashville" last Saturday night, defeating the Predators 6-1, with red-hot Alexander Steen leading the way with two goals. Steen now has ten goals in nine games, the first Blues' player to reach double-digits in goals in the first nine games since Scott Young accomplished that feat to open the 2000-01 season. Previously, Brett Hull did it twice. The club record is held by Brian Sutter, who scored ten goals in the first eight games of the 1978-79 season. Steen, born in Winnipeg in 1984, will look to extend his scoring streak tonight against the visiting Jets as the Note seeks to extract a measure of revenge for the shootout loss in Winnipeg eleven days ago.
The visitors tonight are not the same Winnipeg Jets club that first joined the NHL in 1979 and are known today as the Phoenix Coyotes. The original Winnipeg Jets were birthed in 1972 as part of the fledgling World Hockey Association, formed as a rival league to the NHL. Bobby Hull and center Thomas Steen (father of Alexander) starred for the successful franchise. The WHA disbanded after seven years, and the Jets joined the NHL along with the franchises in Edmonton (Oilers), Quebec (Nordiques, relocated as the Colorado Avalanche) and Hartford (Whalers, relocated as the Carolina Hurricanes). Financial difficulties due to rising player salaries and operating costs forced yet another relocation, and the Jets turned into the Coyotes in 1996.
The Blues did not play the Jets last year as a constricted lock-out schedule limited regular season play within the conferences. Winnipeg was somehow slotted in the Eastern Conference, Southeast Division during the 2013 season. However, with a much-needed realignment in place this season, the Jets were moved to the Central to become division rivals with the Blues. The reason Winnipeg was in the East and Southeast was because prior to 2011, the hockey club was known as the Atlanta Thrashers. Atlanta was awarded an NHL franchise in June, 1997. It was the second NHL franchise for "The Big Peach", the first being the Atlanta Flames in 1972, who departed for Calgary in 1980 and are today known as the Calgary Flames.
The second go-around for Atlanta was part of a four team-tiered expansion including other clubs in Nashville (Predators), Columbus (Blue Jackets) and St. Paul, Minnesota (Wild). Each new franchise would begin play when its respective new arena was completed. Philips Arena, the Thrashers' new home, was built on the site of the Omni, the former home of the Flames and completed in time for the 1999-2000 season. Owned by Time Warner, the multinational media corporation, Atlanta joined the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference and played their first game in October, 1999, losing to the New Jersey Devils, 4-1. Captain Kelly Buchberger scored the first goal in franchise history. They would finish last and out of the playoffs, yet that enabled GM Don Waddell to choose Dany Heatley in the 2000 Entry Draft. Heatley would go on to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league's best rookie in 2002. The club also had an excellent choice in the 2001 Amateur Draft, Ilya Kovalchuk, who made the NHL Rookie Team in 2002.
The Thrashers franchise was sold in 2003 to local business interests in Atlanta by Time Warner. And then tragedy struck eight days after the sale. Heatley crashed his brand-new Ferrari in a one-car accident in which he and Thrashers' center Dan Snyder were seriously injured. Heatley suffered a broken jaw and arm and tore knee ligaments, but Snyder died five days later due to septic shock. Heatley's blood alcohol content was below the legal limit, yet his combination of speeding and recklessness led to criminal charges, which were later dropped. He received three years' probation and community service and was eventually traded to Ottawa for Marian Hossa.
Atlanta would not make the playoffs until 2007, finishing first in the Southeast Division. Led by superstars Kovalchuk and Hossa and a healthy goaltender, Kari Lehtonen, the Thrashers won 43 games. Former Blues Scott Mellanby and Keith Tkachuk were also members of that team. Unfortunately, Atlanta was swept in four games by the New York Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs, and from that point, things only got worse. The following season, the Thrashers lost the first six games in a row and ended up last in the division, second to last in the conference with 76 points. In 2010, unable to reach agreement on a contract, Kovalchuk was traded to New Jersey and eventually Rick Dudley was brought in as the new GM and Craig Ramsay as coach. Successful trades with Chicago added defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and winger Andrew Ladd. However, financial losses (reportedly $130M over six years), ownership struggles and poor performances on the ice led to rumors of relocation to Kansas City, Quebec City, Hamilton and Winnipeg. Ultimately, the team was sold to the Canadian group, True North Sports & Entertainment. A deal was finalized in May, 2011, and the franchise was moved to the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, re-named the Jets.
A Blues' victory tonight and another goal or two for Alexander Steen will make this a happy Halloween indeed! Let's Go Blues!!!