RALEIGH — For years, the Carolina Hurricanes would play the Atlanta Thrashers in the preseason, even after they ditched other Southeast Division opponents from their schedule. Their preseason visits to Atlanta may not be over yet.
The Thrashers are gone, headed north of the border to become the Winnipeg Jets this summer, but Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said the Canes are considering playing a preseason game in Atlanta next fall as they battle the Nashville Predators for whatever hockey fans might be left in the 404 area code.
Rutherford said the Hurricanes and Predators will each get to broadcast 40 games to the Atlanta market this year, with a long-term decision on the fate of the TV market to be made by the NHL next summer.
Now a two-time NHL loser, it's clear Atlanta isn't the greatest hockey market on the continent. But it doesn't cost the Hurricanes a nickel to show a few games to try to win over a few fans.
"There's some passionate fans there," said new Hurricanes forward Anthony Stewart, who played for the Thrashers last season. "I'm on Twitter pretty much every day, and they seem passionate about that. I've heard some fans say that their next team is going to be Tampa or Nashville or Carolina. It's definitely worth it."
Whether the jilted hockey fans of Atlanta will be interested in watching their former division rivals is an open question, but the Hurricanes think it's worth pursuing, as do the Predators. (A Tampa Bay Lightning fan blog is also wooing Thrashers fans on a less official basis.)
The Hurricanes benefit from familiarity, having played at least three games a year in Atlanta for a decade. The Predators, a four-hour drive away, have geography in their corner - and a head start.
They're already marketing ticket packages to Thrashers fans to come up and see a game in Nashville. The "Thrash to Smash" package offers free tickets to Winnipeg's one visit to Nashville to any fans who buy tickets to five other Predators game.
"It could mean a couple hundred tickets per game on the weekend, maybe," Predators CEO Jeff Cogen told the Nashville Tennessean earlier this summer. "Would I like to explore and maximize that situation? Absolutely."
The Hurricanes, who can offer four visits by the former Thrashers - including a preseason game in Charlotte, a few hours closer to Atlanta - haven't made any such initiative yet, although Rutherford said they're considering it.
There's no time to waste: The Hurricanes should already be working with local hotels to market ticket-and-room packages for all three of Winnipeg's games at the RBC Center, especially if they can get their hands on the Thrashers' season-ticket mailing list.
It's a no-brainer, and at this point there's no downside in any of this for the Hurricanes. If they can sell a few tickets and add a few eyeballs to their TV telecasts (to please national advertisers like John Deere and RBC Bank), it's a no-lose situation.
Going forward, the Hurricanes will have to make a decision. A preseason game in Atlanta would be a dead-certain money-loser, but the intangible benefits may make it worthwhile. Rutherford said the Hurricanes would also consider investing in Atlanta-area youth hockey if the team decided to make a long-term play for the market.
The last time anyone fought over Atlanta, it burned to the ground. It's going to be interesting to watch the Predators and Hurricanes wrestle over Atlanta - and find out if there's even anything worth fighting over.