Winnipeg and Me

Today I was sent a link to yet another story about the potential relocation of the Coyotes or Thrashers to Winnipeg. Normally I try to ignore these stories, but I’m tired of keeping quiet. I’ve got something to say, but fair warning: it’s a rant. I’m posting it here because blogging is hard work that comes with little in the way of thanks and I feel like I’ve earned this opportunity to be self-indulgent. If you don’t like whiny opinion pieces, don’t read it. If you're from Winnipeg, definitely don't read it.

I would like for there to be an NHL team in the city of Winnipeg.

Of course, I’d also like for there to be an NHL team in Kansas City, Las Vegas, Quebec City, and Glendale, AZ. I’d like for there to be an NHL team in every city that has the fans to support it, and to be honest, I wish there were an NHL team in quite a few cities that don’t have the fans to support it. Most of all, I’d like for there to be an NHL team in Atlanta, GA.

See, that’s the difference between me and the "many" vocal fans (probably just a few hundred obnoxious ones) begging the NHL to move a team to Winnipeg: they want their own team, damn the consequences. They aren’t particularly concerned about where the team comes from or what it means for rest of the NHL. But me, I’d like to see sports fans all across North America have the opportunity to appreciate the greatest sport known to man. (Okay, greatest sport known to man if you don’t count Lingerie Football.)

I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. Hockey was around and popular, but it wasn’t really part of my childhood: I wanted to play, but my family couldn’t afford it. We were more of a football family anyway. I have fond memories of the few times we went to Bills games as a kid. I think I might have been to a Sabres game. Once. Maybe.

Despite not growing up with it, I’m a huge hockey fan now. It’s not because I grew up or lived in a great hockey city: I wasn’t a hockey fan until after the lockout nearly 10 years after I moved to Atlanta. When people find out I like hockey, they say, "Oh, where’d you grow up?" "Buffalo, but I learned to love hockey in Atlanta." It’s not that strange: I’ve taken many friends to games over the years and every single one of them has enjoyed it. I’ve turned several friends into pretty serious fans just by taking them to a few games. It’s pretty easy: a live hockey game is an amazing experience. There are still plenty of folks in Atlanta who have yet to enjoy a game, but in a city of over 5 million people, there are quite a few hockey fans of the future here.

I don’t really remember my first-ever Thrashers game. I want to say it was a 3-1 loss to the Islanders sometime before the lockout, but to be honest, I can’t recall. I do remember my second Thrashers game. It was 2005-2006 and the Thrashers got absolutely demolished by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The score was 9-1. I had a BLAST.

When you can go to a game and watch your team get killed that badly and still enjoy it, it says a lot. That season, I went to maybe a half-dozen more games. In 2006-2007, I probably went to 20 or 25. In 2007-2008, I had season tickets and have had them ever since. That said, it’s certainly easier to make new hockey fans with a winning hockey team and that’s something Atlanta just hasn’t had. With some time and investment, Atlanta has the demographics to easily become a great hockey town.

Hockey has become more than just something I enjoy, it’s become a part of my life. I started blogging toward the end of 2009 and joined this site that summer.  I’ve been able to interview coaches and players and attend games as a pseudo-member of the press. I’ve made friends and developed relationships with people I once only admired from a distance. Recently, I even played my first game. (Yeah, I was terrible, but I’ll keep at it.) Hockey is a big part of who I am.

This feeling isn’t unique to me. I know many other fans – many here in Atlanta, great numbers more elsewhere – who feel exactly the same way about their team. They exist in Phoenix as well. They were in Winnipeg when the Jets left. There were hardcore Nordiques fans and Whalers fans and, for that matter, Atlanta Flames fans. I would never dream of taking the game from a single fan; I can’t imagine telling a person that I’m going to kidnap his second family. To say that to an entire city? Ludicrous.

This is what makes me different from this small group of rather vocal fans in Winnipeg. This is what makes me a better fan. Moving a team is about more than just getting a chance to watch the NHL in your city. It changes peoples’ lives.

As a hockey fan, I know the importance the game has in my life and in the lives of others. I wouldn’t dream of ripping that away. And yet there are hundreds - they'd say thousands - of eager hockey fans in Winnipeg who think nothing of stealing a team. They don’t even seem to care which team. Whichever looks weakest, they want it. They are scavengers, vultures.

Hockey, I thought, was a sport with a code for players and fans alike. Unlike, say, football, you don’t stand most of the game. Unlike baseball, you don’t get drunk and talk to your friends all game. Unlike basically every other sport out there, you don’t enter or leave the stands while the game is in play. Hockey is characterized by a politeness, even to fans of other teams (exception: Flyers fans… asking them to behave is like asking your dog to kindly leave the pot roast alone while you leave the room for a few minutes.) I’ve visited a few out-of-town NHL arenas to cheer on the Thrashers, and I’ve always been pleasantly surprised at how friendly the fans are to a dude in the other team’s jersey: Boston, Pittsburgh, Nashville, all great people.

That’s not to say there wasn’t some smack talk, of course. But it was civil.

None of these fans have suggested I don’t deserve a team. That’d be a violation of the code. It’s like hitting on your best friend’s girlfriend: you don’t do that. (You do that, you’re just some English pig…) Even if they’re not getting along so well right now. Hell, especially if they’re not getting along so well right now. This seems to be something the Peg-heads don't understand.

Perhaps they’ve forgotten the pain they felt when the lost the Jets. I find this a little hard to believe: they sure seem to talk about it a lot. If they remember how terrible it is, though, how can they be so willing to inflict that pain on others? It’s like responding to a beloved pet’s death by stealing your neighbor’s pet. Sorry: I’ve got mine. Or yours, rather, but now it's mine.

Of course, if Winnipeg fans were simply selfish, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. Selfishness is widespread. Hell, I don’t want to give up the Thrashers because I’m selfish. We have that in common. What we don’t have in common is a sense of entitlement and a media that's complicit.

Why is it that so few people challenge Winnipeg fans when they claim they deserve a team? Why do you deserve it? Because you had one before? You're not the only city that lost a team. What makes you special? What, because a few thousand people turned out for a rally? Once? Or twice? "We want a hockey team! Come out for a rally! Discount beer!" We’re supposed to be impressed that people turn out for that? It’s Winnipeg. In the winter. What else are people going to do?

I’d like to buy a billboard along the highway in Winnipeg – do they have a highway? – that says, "Hey hockey fans! It’s not you, it’s us. Love, The NHL." The NHL just isn’t that into you, Winnipeg. Can you blame them?

It takes more than an arena and ticket sales to run a successful hockey team. You need players willing to live in your city. Remember, hockey players are ordinary people. They have families. Imagine the conversation a player might have with his wife:

 

"Hey honey, I’m thinking about signing in Winnipeg! What are your thoughts?"

"I’m thinking of a seven-letter word that starts with a ‘D’ and rhymes with ‘the Force.’"

Again, I don’t doubt the passion of Winnipeg fans. I bet there are a few NHLers out there who would be willing to live in Winnipeg to play in front of a sold-out crowd of roughly 16,000 every home game. I just don’t think there are that many.

But then again, it doesn’t matter whether I think Winnipeg could support a team: the NHL doesn’t believe it. Gary Bettman bent over backward to try to make something work in Phoenix and that wasn’t because he has something personal against Winnipeg: he’s running a business. For whatever reason, the NHL doesn’t believe moving a team to Winnipeg would be good for business. A few hundred people acting like idiots on the internet won’t change that.

In general, it’s a good idea to just Ignore The Trolls. I manage that pretty well, but it’s when this recycled relocation story pops up on mainstream news sites that I get roped into it. In fact, that’s the whole reason I felt it necessary to write this blog: a short, nearly meaningless story on TSN.

Yes, TSN ran a story (written by TSN Staff – oh, anonymity!) devoid of any real information, much less any new information. "Oh, the Coyotes might move to Winnipeg, but if they don’t, maybe the Thrashers," says Winnipeg’s mayor. It’s the same story we’ve seen for months, if not years, in the Winnipeg papers. It’s the same story that gets picked up by blogs when they want a little extra traffic.

NEWS FLASH: WINNIPEG'S MAYOR THINKS WINNIPEG WILL GET A TEAM. RESIDENTS OF WINNIPEG HOPEFUL.

The TSN story was like something a Winnipeg fan would write on a hockey blog. A crappy hockey blog. I expect more from TSN. There’s a difference between being a journalist and a blogger (a line which can be confusing and difficult to manage at times) and this story was far more fitting of a blog than a respected news site.

Still, you’ve got to get traffic, right? [Am I guilty of this? Hell yes. But this is a blog, not a respected news site.]

It’s like there’s a set of instructions somewhere on the internet that say this:

 

Hey you! Want more traffic to your hockey blog? Write a story about the potential return of the Jets to Winnipeg! Just be sure to mention Phoenix and Atlanta having troubles, no need to learn or mention any specifics. Adding a reference to True North will help your search rankings. Point to "information" from "sources" – it’s okay, there’s no way anybody can check. Whatever you do, don’t quote the many actual sources who have stressed that it’s unlikely. Lastly, make sure to get the Winnipeg folks on Twitter to notice and voila!

It’s sad, but it works.  I mean, let’s take something I really want – to make out with Zooey Deschanel, for example – and imagine that people kept writing blogs saying, "Sources claim Zooey Deschanel likes overweight 20-something hockey bloggers." "Making out with Tim? Something Zooey Deschanel might do as soon as next year."

I’d read those blogs. After a couple years, I might even start to believe it. That seems to be the situation here: rumors led to attention, attention meant those rumors count as news, news drew even more attention. The bar for what counts as "news" has been dramatically lowered. Run-of-the-mill blogs run by Winnipeg fans get a pass on this. It’s to be expected. TSN should not.

There’s nothing I can do or say to change the behavior of Winnipeg fans or the Canadian media, but for Atlantans – hell, for other self-respecting hockey fans in general – I have a plea: stop.

Stop following them. Stop retweeting them. Stop sending links to these rumor-mongering stories. Don’t talk about it here or on social media sites. Don’t comment on the stories. Don’t comment on this story. ("Turn off your TV set!") Ignore the trolls. They won’t go away, but I’m tired of giving them the attention.

There’s no reason to make these fantasies an actual news story. Let’s be done with it.

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