Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Winnipeg, And The NHL: "Winning Doesn't Just Happen"

Winnipeg finally gets another crack at playing host to an NHL franchise. I should be happy — nay, ecstatic — for the city of my youth, but I’m having trouble finding that note.

If there’s a city on this continent that ought to be the North American Hockey Capital, it’s Winnipeg. You won’t find a longer, colder winter this side of Iqaluit; the locals love the game, more than any other sport they play host to; and I believe the season ticket sales will likely show the citizens to be as loyal to their team as Toronto is to its pathetic Leafs — if we analyze the stats on a per capita basis.

Scout around and the tenor of most analysts is a “The glass is at least half-full!” I’m resolutely “half-empty” in my perspective, so here’s how I see the Winnipeg situation.

The NHL has not been kind to Winnipeg. When John Ziegler and Brian O’Neill finally opened the door for the WHA, and Winnipeg’s Jets, to enter the NHL, it was under the condition Winnipeg put three of its six best scorers up in a reclamation draft. This, coupled with some characteristically bone-headed managerial strategies, reduced Winnipeg to a farm team scraping for its next big break.

After two abysmal seasons — one a record-setter, of the sort that people strive to avoid — Winnipeg learned to perform respectably enough in the grand scheme of things. But in a division dominated by Calgary and Super-Edmonton, they never made it past the first round of play-offs. Once Gary Bettman followed Gretzky’s lead and dug for gold in the southern states, the writing was on the wall for Winnipeg.

Guy Vanderhaeghe once remarked about life on the prairies, “We have our wealthy citizens — but they’re not that wealthy.” Nowhere does this hold truer than in Winnipeg. Does the place really have more money flowing through it than it did 15 years ago? A betting man could make a persuasive case that the US greenback is down for the count bringing those recently-capped players' salaries within almost-affordable range, but even so, what’s Winnipeg got beyond an assured fan base to keep a team happy and well-fed? Hydro, life insurance and a furniture factory. Who am I missing?

Weirdly enough, for a guy who consciously chose to move to Toronto, I actually feel protective toward the city I was born in. I can remember a disgruntled quaterback for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers trying to get out of his contract so he could play the NFL complaining that, when it came to life in the city, “There are only so many times you can go to the zoo.” I happen to think the culture scene in Winnipeg is more vibrant and inviting than it is in, say, Toronto. But if you prefer to live in a city where the temperature doesn’t dip below freezing, and your idea of seeing the sights is a strip bar with more than five poles — and let’s face it, I’ve just described 99% of pro hockey players — then Winnipeg can be a tough sell. And I haven’t even mentioned the mosquitoes.

But hey: maybe I’m out to lunch on all this. Maybe those young guys from Atlanta are keen to play for a crowd that’s passionate about the game. Maybe this is a sign that Bettman’s rethink of league expansion is finally pointed in the right direction. Detroit's a city that's been on the ropes for decades, and yet it’s got a Stanley legacy — why not Winnipeg?

Here’s the great thing about being a genial pessimist: nothing makes me happier than being proven wrong.

Go, Winnipeg. Go.

1 comment:

DarkoV said...

"I happen to think the culture scene in Winnipeg is more vibrant and inviting than it is in, say, Toronto."

Sir, you are, if anything, a true homer.