Early last summer I chatted with a pump-jockey at the local gas-station. The Toronto Maple Leafs had just been eliminated from the play-offs by the province's other NHL franchise, the Ottawa Senators. I asked the guy if he was cheering for the Sens now. He looked at me as if I just didn't get it. "It's the Leafs or nothing," he said, his tone making clear just how far I was testing his patience.
Being a sports fan is an irrational business, and it's possible I'm missing some crucial mechanism in the soul to prevent me from joining their ranks. It's more likely I had it taken from me when the Winnipeg Jets followed the money to Phoenix. That was an eye-opener, alright. The way I see it, Leafs fans would be done a world of good if the franchise were sold to Albuquerque for a few years. The truth is the League, the team owners, and precious few Leafs players could give a rat's ass about gas-guy's irrational loyalty. If someone were to wave enough money from the Cayman Islands, the team would move, and the League would nod its approval.
As Gary Bettman gets set to announce the forfeiture of the NHL season, it's difficult to ascertain which party has behaved more irrationally: the League, the players, or the fans. After all the talk about "philosophical differences" between the League and the players, it now seems the ideological chasm can be bridged by a mere six million dollars. At this point, neither side is going to win with the fans. The fans had the least to lose, and plenty of time to consider that paucity. Now spring training is underway in baseball; a last-minute agreement and a 28 game season would be an outrageous act of contempt toward hockey consumers.
I used to watch regular season games, but for the last few years the only hockey I could be bothered with were the playoffs. I gradually lost interest after Winnipeg was sold. A sense of geographical loyalty plays a role in my disenchantment, but only a small role. The Phoenix acquisition of the Jets was the beginning of an unmerited league expansion that even an international talent pool couldn't fill. With talent spread that thinly, the game has become a dump-and-chase bore. The season is three months too long, the League is six, possibly eight teams too large, and everyone involved is too fat in the head to do the right thing and downsize appropriately.
Still, the inconceivable can happen. A few years ago I took my father to the Hockey Hall of Fame. As with the League whose praises it sings, the Hall of Fame is mostly an expensive and mediocre attraction. It's only when you get to the historical archives that you finally arrive at material with genuine interest. In fact, getting a close look at Lord Stanley's Cup was almost worth the exorbitant price of admission. Until I saw it with my own eyes, I had no idea Winnipeg won the Stanley Cup three times! It seems the Jets were not the first Winnipeg team to vie for it: the Winnipeg Victorias contested for and won the cup in 1896, 1901 and 1902.
It’s over a century later. Perhaps the Stanley Cup will regain its iconic brand value among hockey consumers. It seems like a crazy dream, but who knows? A Winnipeg team might once again lay claim to it. Stranger things have happened in the irrational realm of sports.