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Atlanta is center stage for the NHL All-Star extravaganza
Six years in the making, the Thrashers host hockey's main event this weekend

ATLANTA - Downtown is decked out in Thrasher blue, NHL All-Star banners hanging from light posts, signage around each corner.

The Westin Peachtree Plaza had a billboard-sized promo curving around its circular side.

But the real indicator that the NHL All-Star festivities are about to get under way here was to be found walking along Centennial Olympic Park Drive.

The word "eh' was overheard as three men loped along the street Thursday morning.

A few Canadians were already in town for the weekend's events. They're a little ahead of most visitors, who like the players, will really start rolling in today.

It's been a long time coming, but Blueland is on hockey's center stage for the next three days.

Thrashers' general manager Don Waddell spearheaded the franchise's effort to get the All-Star Game. He did it primarily for the fans in Atlanta - because this is not a cash cow and it's a whole lot of work.

"It's important for our fans, that's No. 1, to see the greatest players in the world all under one roof," Waddell said. "It's a real honor and something that our fans deserve.

"We've been anxiously awaiting this. What better way to showcase our franchise, our city?"

Six years in the making, the dream of an NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta has finally come to fruition.

Originally scheduled for 2005, Atlanta's chance to show off to the hockey world was delayed by a lost season. Fortunately, there was some prudence when the contracts granting the Thrashers hosting rights to the midseason extravaganza were signed.

Because the possibility of a lockout was looming large, the contracts included a contingency plan. Should the 2005 All-Star event be canceled, Atlanta would get it in 2008.

"It was good foresight for both parties to protect the fact that we get to hold onto it," Thrashers' chief marketing officer Lou DePaoli said. "Because the fans were so excited for it."

One of the calls that DePaoli said the team fielded most often during the lockout was from fans concerned about what that meant for the All-Star Game.

With the caveat for 2008, the Thrashers were able to assure everyone that the event would be in Atlanta.

Now all those years of work are about to pay off.

DePaoli said the Thrashers' primary responsibility was to sell out the 18,500-seat Philips Arena. The NHL initially got 8,500 tickets, but decided after the fact it did not need all of those and gave back 2,000, which the Thrashers sold to their fans.

Season ticket holders for the Thrashers and their corporate sibling, the NBA Hawks, were able to purchase All-Star packages - something DePaoli said doesn't always happen. A waiting list was also posted on the team's Web site.

"We generated 7,500 names on a waiting list in five weeks - people from all over, Canada to California," DePaoli said.

"We have no tickets remaining, which is a beautiful thing."

A big reason for that is the date change. DePaoli, who worked in the NBA for five years, said the

Thrashers pushed hard for the NHL to move it from its traditional midweek to a weekend.

"You need the weekend for people to come in and take over the city starting on Thursday night or Friday," DePaoli said. "And you own it.

"We sat with (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman and said, "This is what you've got to do.' That has really helped us sell this event."

Tickets are still for sale on the Internet, but it's all secondary markets. Lower-level seats for Sunday's 6 p.m. All-Star Game are going for about $300 each, nearly double face value. But some of the upper level rows were still available for under $100.

A couple of center-ice seats on the glass were being offered for $3,050 each. Face value on those would be $350.

"It goes to show how much demand there is for this game," DePaoli said.

DePaoli also said a lot of interest recently has been in the Saturday morning open practice. NHL Rockin' Skate 2008 tickets range from $10 to $30. Fans can watch both conferences practice and afterward is a concert by the Jonas Brothers. The three-hour event is being hosted by Atlanta native and Grammy-winning musical artist Usher.

While the majority of planning for this weekend's events has taken years, the Rockin' Skate was a last-minute addition, DePaoli said. Developed over the last couple of months, the Thrashers expanded on an event held last year in Dallas.

"The first night they had an event in the arena, an open practice with Cuba Gooding Jr. skating around (as emcee)," DePaoli said. "It was very interactive, but that was pretty much it. It was on Monday night and they sold a lot of tickets, but the arena was only about half full.

"This could be one heck of an event for 30 bucks. We want to try to make it something that leaves a lasting impression."

DePaoli and the Thrashers sent a contingent to last year's All-Star Game in Dallas and it was about that time when the planning for this weekend's production kicked into high gear.

The league and host team have worked hand-in-hand to put on this event, which will include 400-500 volunteers from the Atlanta area.

"It's a very collaborative effort," DePaoli said. "Because we can't dedicate all our time. It's not a huge money maker. It's more about the impression of hockey in the marketplace."

SideBar: 2008 ALL-STAR WEEKEND

· What: NHL

All-Star Game

· When: Sunday, 6 p.m.

· Where: Philips Arena, Atlanta

· TV: Versus

· Companion events: Skills

Competition, Young Stars Game (Saturday, 7 p.m., Versus)