Can Pro Hockey Find A Place in Atlanta Sun?

Despite a checkered history here, the NHL hopes that the New South will provide a warmer reception.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Justin Brossman is a typical Atlanta third-grader with tousled brown hair and freckles.

Typical, except that he has a near-regulation- sized roller-hockey rink in his basement and has already worn out four pairs of skates in his short life.

Few youths here can match his devotion, but Justin's enthusiasm is a growing phenomenon in the Southeast and a demographic that makes the National Hockey League eager to expand into the region.

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Despite hockey's troubled past in Atlanta, the NHL is encouraged by a growing national television audience - witness the stellar ratings of the Stanley Cup series won by the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday. Later this month, the 26-team league plans to announce four new franchises, including Atlanta and Nashville. In addition, Raleigh, N.C., has lured the Hartford Whalers south this year. Now reincarnated as the Carolina Hurricanes, they will begin play next season. Add to that the Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Florida Panthers in Miami, and it's clear that hockey in the South is rising again.

"The NHL is interested in expanding in the South because there aren't teams there already," says Bernadette Mansur, an NHL spokeswoman. "Take Atlanta, it's is a wonderful sports town and we'd like to be there."

But in a region where almost no one was raised with an ash stick in hand, where college basketball reigns supreme and college football games are all-day family events, will spectators embrace a cold-weather sport that mostly displays the skills of Canadian or European stars?

If hockey succeeds here, some say, it would become as much a symbol of the changing South as the recent influx of foreign cars and high-tech industries.

But many harbor doubts. "Hockey just doesn't interest me," says Arthur Jones, an Atlantan sporting a Cleveland Indians jersey. "I wasn't raised up on hockey, I was raised up on basketball, football, even baseball. But where I grew up, nobody was like, 'Let's go play some hockey.' "

Even fans of media-magnate Ted Turner's bid for an Atlanta hockey team are unsure of the support hockey will get in Georgia Tech and Atlanta Braves country. "An awful lot of people didn't go to the Knights games," says Angela Ryer, referring to Atlanta's minor-league team that lasted only three seasons.

History is certainly not on hockey's side. In 1980, the city's first NHL team, the Flames, headed north when the owner couldn't turn a profit or sell the team locally. That move turned out to be the kiss of death for all hockey in the region at the time.

The 1970s had seen an unprecedented boom in the sport down South. The region had its own Southern Hockey League, with minor-league teams spread from Tulsa, Okla., to Houston to Birmingham, Ala. But with the departure of the Flames, those teams folded too. The 1990s have seen another Southern growth spurt in the sport, but Atlanta fans were left with no team to cheer in 1995 when its minor-league team, the Knights, departed for Canada.

The NHL and Southern hockey supporters, however, say much has changed in the South and in the sport of hockey since the '70s that makes hockey more likely to succeed here this time around.

The South, first of all, now has more Northerners than ever before. It's also more populous. The Raleigh metro area, for instance, has doubled to 1.5 million residents since 1980.

And the South is younger - which is key for hockey given that roller hockey and ice hockey were the No. 1 and 2 growth sports for kids last year, according to the NHL. Again, Justin Brossman is a case in point. Do his classmates and friends tease him for being so into hockey? "No," he says. "They play too. They're not all on a team, but they play in the streets."

Finally, a long-held truth in the South has been proved to be less absolute than once thought. For decades, college ball alone held the hearts of Southerners. It was believed that there was no room left for professional sports.

But the following of the Charlotte Hornet pro-basketball team and the Carolina Panther football team has shown there is plenty of love and ticket money to go around. "The pro teams' success has certainly disproved that old thinking," says Chris Brown with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hockey has changed as well. In-line skating has made the game accessible to people in warm climates. Pro-hockey gets more exposure on television. And the sport is successfully building teams in California, Arizona, and Florida. There are more teams in the Sun Belt now than in Canada.

"You don't have to be from the North to like hockey," says Harvey Schiller, president of Turner Sports and point man for securing an Atlanta hockey team. "A lot of people live inland and like to swim."

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