Friday, May 13, 2011

Kicking the Fans Around

Based on my recent posts, hockey is clearly what’s on my mind.

I could keep that hockey-posting trend going by writing about what I perceive to be an unprecedented amount of dives being taken to draw penalties…which cheapens a game whose rules actually allow you to be sent to the penalty box for diving.

And I could write about how the refs are not calling any of those diving penalties…which endangers the reputation of a game that is defined by heart and hustle.

Or I could write about the conference finals, now that the match-ups are set and the games are starting tomorrow.

But instead I feel compelled to write about the drama surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes; the heartless rumors about them returning to Winnipeg; and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s bizarre, lovesick-puppy obsession with hockey in Phoenix.

As a hockey fan from the Sun Belt, I have mixed emotions. I know what it is like to love the game and to talk about it with knowledge and passion, only to have close-minded Northerners dismiss you simply because they are bigots when it comes to place of birth. This should make me sympathetic to Phoenix fans, who are often told they don’t deserve to have a hockey team playing in their town. Yet I do not find myself feeling that sympathy.

Although part of me wants to wonder why that is, the answer is clear and comes in two parts: 1) Phoenix’s franchise was not born there, but instead it fled there from a city that did not deserve to be abandoned; and 2) in an odd twist, my love-the-underdog mindset, which I consider to be as All-American as apple pie, persuades me to root for small Canadian markets even in some instances where they are going up against a U.S. market.

I remember when the Winnipeg Jets packed up and headed south for the desert. I remember watching them play their final game in Winnipeg, a playoff game against Detroit that they were doomed to lose. The building was packed to the rafters with raucous fans who were hoping against hope that their team would not leave. Looking at those fans from the plains of Manitoba, you just knew that they lived and breathed hockey and would support their team to the end. But faced with financial obstacles -- like lower revenue from being in a smallish city, and having to convince players to be compensated in Canadian dollars when they could simply play in the U.S. and be paid in U.S. dollars -- the Jets abandoned their fans, departed the country where hockey was born, and moved to what they thought would be greener pastures.

Voila! The Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, and Gary Bettman and his cronies toasted what they thought was sure to be a grand new day in the NHL’s geographic expansion. Bettman & Co. were right in many aspects of the big picture, because hockey is more popular today than ever before and is played in many more places than ever before. But they were wrong in some aspects, of which the Winnipeg-Phoenix situation provides a perfect example.

Human perception and judgment are highly fallible and pretty much everything in life is temporary, including economic conditions. Fast forward to the present and you will see that the Canadian dollar is stronger than the U.S. dollar, and you will see that despite moving specifically to make money, the team continues to lose dozens of millions of dollars annually after 15 years in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Winnipeg -- the largest city in the vast center of the country which produces the most NHL players -- is left without an NHL team for its children to grow up watching.

This is so obviously wrong that commenting on it is not even necessary. I feel for the hockey fans in Phoenix who constantly hear that the Coyotes may be leaving, and I feel for the workers and business owners who benefit from the influx of people attending games at arena. However, I feel even more for the hockey fans in Winnipeg. Not only did they have their hearts ripped out when the Jets left town, now they must suffer through the ordeal of having their hearts played with on a daily basis, as league officials and prospective team owners use them as pawns to extract money from distant taxpayers.

On top of that, I can not stomach the gross hypocrisy and illogic of Bettman & Co. Not only did the NHL rah-rah that move to Phoenix when it happened, but when the team filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, the NHL purchased it in order to prevent it from being sold to someone who intended to move it to Hamilton, Ontario. That would be fine if the league showed such an interest in every city’s franchise, but it does not.

When asked recently about the Coyotes situation, Bettman said the NHL stands behind fans in every city. Unfortunately, his nose was growing. He and the league showed no concern for Jets fans when their team left Winnipeg. Nor did they show any concern for Nordiques fans when their team left Quebec City, or for Whalers fans when their team left Hartford. Even today, the powers that be are not showing any obvious concern for the fans in Atlanta whose team is being talked about as one that might skip town. The stench of hypocrisy and dishonesty makes me want to see the Coyotes return to Winnipeg just to give Bettman & Co. their comeuppance.

But now that Glendale politicians have voted to set aside another $25 million to give to the NHL next year, to cover any operating losses the Coyotes may sustain, it looks like any chances of a move from Phoenix to Winnipeg are on hold for at least a year. Many people have switched to speculating that during that year’s reprieve, the Atlanta Thrashers will relocate to Winnipeg instead. Whatever happens, it is going to be interesting.

Update, 5/31/11: Earlier today it was announced that True North Sports & Entertainment has purchased the Atlanta Thrashers and will move them to Winnipeg. I have to say congratulations to the fans in Winnipeg because they never should have lost the Jets, and because returning NHL hockey to their city is righting a wrong.

But at the same time I have to sympathize with the fans in Atlanta. There are some good ones there, and it is horribly unfortunate that their team was saddled with an ownership group which made it obvious from the beginning that they did now want to own the team and were not going to even try to produce a winner. After 11 years of the crap, the fact that 13,000+ people per night spent their time and money attending Thrashers games does not seem all that bad.


thesawch said...

Great story.Fiannly someone understands how we feel/felt from somewhere else!!

TheCliqueFivee said...

Hi Stanton, fantastic post and I'm not a hockey fan (the season is way too long and I lose interest, for starters, but I won't go in to that). I live in Phoenix and I'm so over the Coyotes drama! Every game I've been to the stands are no more than half full, at best. Phoenix may have the population numbers to support an NHL team but we just don't have the fan base (Phoenicians would rather be at Saddle Ranch and Margaritaville, those places are packed every weekend). I'm tired of tax payers picking up the tab, enough is enough. By the way, I've been reading your blog for a while now (found you through the HH)and really appreciate your thoughtful posts on politics, you know your stuff!