Hockey Headlines

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Living In Dreamland

I like to read the newspaper. It brings me a pile of news that I may have missed from the day before. In particular, I read the Sports section from cover to cover because it keeps me informed. I go online to read other cities' newspapers as well because I believe that it is important to see both sides of a story. Yesterday, I was reading through the Winnipeg Free Press' coverage about the Manitoba Moose and the AHL's Calder Cup Playoffs. What I found, though, was something totally different.

I've never been one to whine and cry about the loss of the Jets from the city of Winnipeg. They never had major corporate support, and the fans would only show up when the Jets were winning. Sure, they had their die-hards, but the Jets relied far too heavily on the walk-up crowd. Winnipeg is a blue-collar city: lots of hard-working people with far too little entertainment money to throw at every pro sports franchise to wander into the city. Well, Randy Turner of the Winnpeg Free Press received an email, and responded to it by using the power of the paper media. Here's the article in full.

"It all began earlier this week with an e-mail from 'Jason', a smug, know-it-all type of missive that, long story short, branded your humble agent as 'ignorant'.

Not the first time, of course, nor the last. In fact, in this Dodge, such accusations can be a badge of honour, depending on the accuser.

My crime, so Jason believed, was having the audacity to pen a column that focused on the fortunes of the Manitoba Moose.

That's right: how dare this newspaper devote any attention to the professional hockey team about to embark on their 2006-07 playoff run?

Don't you know Winnipeg hockey fans don't care about the AHL's Moose? it asked. It's embarrassing to have to root for a farm team of the Vancouver Canucks, once the Winnipeg Jets' nemesis, it continued. I'll never go to a Moose game as long as I live, it concluded.

Sigh. Only in Winnipeg. You see, over the years it's almost inevitable that whenever this space focuses on the Moose, there will usually be a few responses berating the team and Free Press coverage thereof. Conversely, when I write about the NHL, the response comes back, 'Hey, why are you ignoring the Moose? Don't you know they're in first place?'

Seriously, who can figure out Winnipeg hockey fans? They didn't support the Jets when they were here, but cry crocodile tears now that they're gone - to the point where in some quarters the Moose are considered poster boys for the loss of the NHL.

Most say they'd rather have the Western Hockey League, but this city never supported the Winnipeg Warriors, either.

Meanwhile, the Moose aren't good enough even though it's the only professional sports franchise in town that regularly sends its players to the majors. Have you seen Kevin Bieksa play defence for the Canucks? He anchors the Vancouver blue-line, is featured on the power play and is tough as year-old beef jerky.

Last year, Bieksa did exactly the same thing for the Moose. But so-called 'real' hockey fans in Winnipeg would never have seen him play in person, what with Moose hockey not being up to their standards and all. Moose call-up Jannik Hansen is drawing rave reviews in the playoffs only a few days after being plucked from the Manitoba roster.

Yes, I get it: the Moose don't play in the NHL. And to fans still pining for the departed the Jets, that will never be good enough. But, seriously, what's the point of berating those thousands who do follow the Moose?

Look, the Moose drew their smallest crowd of the season Thursday night to open the playoff series with Grand Rapids. Some were shocked by the empty seats. Others thought it was a testament that nobody cares.

But I'll tell you exactly the reason for the light gate. In fact, I'll give you four: Roberto Luongo, the Ottawa Senators, Sidney Crosby and the Calgary Flames. All four were in action Thursday night for free on television. It was literally a feast of post-season eye candy. And why should anybody feel guilty about not showing up? Because you know who else would have rather been watching the NHL playoffs on Thursday night? The Moose, every one of them, in person.

In fact, I was somewhat surprised that almost 6,000 spectators actually showed up, given the competition. At the same time, it was the largest crowd to attend an AHL playoff game so far this year. And tonight some 8,000 fans are expected to be back in the MTS Centre for Game 2. You know what, folks? That's not bad.

Indeed, it wasn't so long ago that the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hosted a playoff game with arch-rival Saskatchewan and more than 10,000 empty seats showed up to watch. Yeah, the Bombers also had competition on television: themselves. And playing a night game in October doesn't exactly scream walk-up ticket sales.

But the point is nobody considered the small crowd as a slight on the Bombers. Yet when it happens to the Moose, it's 'embarrassing'.

You know, this is getting tiresome. The Moose are what they are: a damn good AHL hockey team playing in the shadow of the long-gone Jets. No one should be frowned upon if they're a fan, and no one should apologize for not buying tickets, either.

If you want to go to the games, then go. If you don't consider them worthy of coverage in the local papers, don't read the story.

Just spare me the useless debate of justifying the team's existence and being labelled as ignorant by hockey snobs who have the arrogant audacity to speak for us all."


Randy Turner pretty much gave an intervention with that article to those who believe that Winnipeg is an NHL town. It is not an NHL town. It never was once the sky-rocketing salaries of the early-1990s began. This is why great players were jettisoned regularly from the Jets franchise. Dale Hawerchuk, Phil Housley, Dave Ellett, Teemu Selanne, Fredrik Olausson, Tie Domi... all traded or let go as free agents. When the NHL left Winnipeg, the salary of the Jets totalled $27 million dollars. With the new CBA, the maximum spenditure is almost double that figure.

I'm a realist. Winnipeg is a town of 700,000 people. They don't have an Ikea because Ikea feels that if you have less than a million residents, you don't have the market for an Ikea. I would say that would be a minimum requirement of the NHL as well. Stop begging the question from Gary Bettman. Winnipeg should not be allowed to receive an expansion team or a relocated team.

Sorry, Winnipeg. I like your city, but sometimes you need to hear the truth. And the truth is that you're not Edmonton or Calgary or Ottawa. You're not even close.

If you want to reach me in regards to this article, my email is to the right. If you'd like to address Randy Turner, he can be reached at randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca. Please be respectful if you email one or both of us. No one wants to sling mud across email.

Until next time, keep your stick on the ice!

8 comments:

Sage Confucius said...

Nashville's population is around 570,000; Raleigh's is 276,000; Pittsburgh's is 335,000; Phoenix, San Jose, even Detroit don't hit the million mark.

The problem with Winnipeg doesn't have as much to do with how many people live there as with the type of people. Especially in Canada, I would think it would hurt on a personal level to lose a NHL franchise. However, if you don't support the team then they have every right to move on.

Personally, I will watch pee wee hockey if that's all that's available. It's the love of the game that drives me, not whether the team playing is in the NHL. The Moose have had an outstanding season and deserve the coverage they are getting. People should stop whining about what they don't have and appreciate what they do have.

Teebz said...

Nashville has 545,000, but it's surrounding cities (Knoxville, Memphis) and suburbs add to the total market, making it well over a million people.

Raleigh has 276,000 people, but the total population of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill is over a million people, and I haven't even spoken about Charlotte yet.

Pittsburgh has a population of 335,000, but the surrounding area has a population of 600,000, and they pull from Ohio and West Virginia as well.

San Jose is right next to San Francisco, Oakland, and Monterey - well over a million people.

Detroit's surrounding area has well over a million people. They pull from Lansing, Jackson, Flint, Saginaw, and Windsor, Ontario.

The closest "cities" to Winnipeg are Thunder Bay, Ontario (8 hours away), Grand Forks, North Dakota (4 hours), Regina, Saskatchewan (6 hours), and Brandon, Manitoba (2 hours). There are 700,000 in Winnipeg, and not enough to pull from surrounding communities to make one million people.

The type of people in Winnipeg are coupon-clippers. They are a discount city. That works great when looking for a deal, but works poorly for supporting big-name entertainment.

I agree with your last paragraph, Sage. Support the Moose, and the NHL may look their way again. Until the Moose start averaging 8000 people on a weekday night for a game in mid-February, Winnipeg needs to drop the stigma against the AHL.

Dear Lord Stanley said...

Sage, as Teebz said, don't rely on the base population numbers for those cities. The Metro areas as a whole must be taken into account. Detroit has far more than a million people (despite being the Worst City In America) and so do the others, when their outlying counties and small cities are taken into account.

Winnipeg just doesn't cut it, size-wise.

Sage Confucius said...

If you're looking at metro areas then the numbers do change. By the way, is ANYTHING near Thunder Bay? LOL

About your Nashville metro area...Memphis is 3 hours away and Knoxville is 2.5 hours. I think more people come down from Fort Campbell in Hopkinsville, KY than from either of those cities. The big draw for the Predators comes from Spring Hill, TN about 45 mins to the south. That's where the Saturn plant is, and where most of the Detroit transplants live. It always amuses me to see as many Red Wings jerseys in the crowd as Predators ones when the Wings come to town.

Teebz said...

Good point about the Red Wing supporters in Nashville, Sage. I totally forgot about the Saturn plant down there. :o)

But Winnipeg simply doesn't have the population of a metropolis or metropolitan area to support a $50 million venture season after season.

Teebz said...

Nice to have you aboard, Lord Stanley! Great blog too!

Burrill said...

Another thing about Detroit and its suburbs is that, probably like the other cities mentioned, some of the suburbs are quite affluent. The magical shrinking city of Detroit itself is definitely not wealthy (and Flint and Saginaw aren't doing too well, either), but a number of suburbs are filled with people who have no problem putting out the money to support the Wings. And that support goes beyond the neighboring suburbs, too, into places like Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. (I live near Ann Arbor.)

The Detroit area's general affinity for sports is probably worth noting, too. With the exception of some of their worst times (the Dead Wings era and the Tigers -- from the 90s until last year -- didn't draw large crowds), all four major pro teams have had good fan support over the years. Even the sad-sack Lions, winners of nothing significant since the 50s and one of the worst teams in the NFL over the last decade, manage to sell far more tickets than they should. And U-M puts 100,000+ people in its football stadium for every home game, and they've done so for 30-some years. People here just seem to love sports.

Unfortunately, I simply can't afford to support the Wings more often than every once in a great while; if I want to watch live hockey (beyond the high school stuff I photograph), I go to University of Michigan hockey games. It's a great atmosphere at drastically reduced price.

Teebz said...

Great comment, Burrill. In fact, I really enjoyed the comments from everyone on this topic.

Thanks for the objective views and intellectual conversation, everyone. This blog entry is certainly a highlight, and might be the best one ever for its comments.