As a Winnipegger, I’ve spent the last couple of years watching the NHL’s endless machinations to keep a team in Phoenix with considerable amusement and maybe just a touch of anger. For all the talk of arenas and owners, or lack thereof, I’d be lying if I said that I ever felt as if my Arctic outpost got the same level of league attention when things were going to hell in ’94 and ’95.
So tonight, as the first bits of news have begun trickling in that my hometown really was on the verge of getting a second bite at the cherry, I’m struck by how unsettled I’m feeling about the whole enterprise.
By 1996, like so many Jets’ fans, I was completely fed up with the NHL, and yet even then, the economic conditions that had sent the Nordiques away and threatened the Oilers and Flames were hard to ignore if one chose to be honest about the situation.
The Canadian dollar was headed for a lengthy swoon, and anyone foolhardy enough to own a team in a marginal market like Winnipeg was going to need deep pockets and extra revenue streams from a modern facility to cope. Even then, any team in that economic environment was still certain to be a very questionable proposition.
The owner and building didn’t happen, obviously, and away they went, headed to their desert oasis so that they might continue a long history of never being very good. My fandom, like most people’s, was rooted in local bonds built during childhood that carried on into my adult years. As a result, after the team moved the Coyotes became just another team from a place I didn’t give a rat’s ass about, no different from St. Louis or L.A. or PIttsburgh.
My indifference was mostly real, with only a slight bit of covering for the disappointment, and that attitude appeared to be shared by most of my fellow Manitobans. The Coyotes didn’t exactly carry many fans with them from here, and obviously I’m in that number that chose to gravitate elsewhere.
Even as the league’s center of financial power began to shift north after the lockout, there was still that nagging sense that the NHL’s move to conquer the Sunbelt was too precious a project to be allowed to simply fail without a monumental effort in every shaky market to prop things up. We’ve certainly seen that in Phoenix, and a cynic, or a realist, take your pick, might have thought that it would happen again elsewhere.
As a result, the default position for most people was that the league brass would rather die in a fire than retrace their steps to Winnipeg. Time has never really healed the wound here, and if anyone doubted that, the reaction by the locals during these last two years of speculation that a team might well be viable again in our mosquito-ridden hellhole should have tipped everyone off. Bruce Arthur touched on this the other day, showing a decent understanding of this insular spot for an auslander.
This really has been a community struggling very hard to rein in its hope so as not to be crushed if things went badly, and as the events of the last few days have sent this affair near the finish line, I was reminded of an article from the past that had nothing at all to do with hockey and absolutely everything to do with here.
Paul Tough passed through these parts nearly a decade ago to interview John K. Samson of the Weakerthans, and ended up writing more than a few hard truths about Winnipeg and its citizens. I was always particularly struck by this bit:
At the same time, there is a small-town resentment that often gets expressed as a complicated kind of self-loathing.
I can’t imagine a sentence that could possibly do a better job of describing the local zeitgeist that has been in place since forever, and even in these days where hope has replaced our normal skepticism about the motives of people in the league office, there’s still the clear sense that the NHL is only coming here because of an abject failure elsewhere, and not out of a belief that we were done wrong in the ’90s or that Winnipeg was a first choice market in their eyes.
As an aside, it’s also, from my perspective, slightly unseemly to gloat over the failure of that other market, for whatever reasons it might have occured. As I mentioned last week, it’s not always easy to be a fan in the Southern U.S., and if their team is leaving, the people that cheered the Thrashers have every reason to feel as if they were let down in a way. I’ve been there. I get it. It feels like crap.
A NEW HOPE
With that all said, tonight is a night where the people here can begin to hope, in a tangible way, that something that means so much to so many will again grace our city in a meaningful way. Whether there is enough support for a viable franchise to exist in the long term is still an open question, but for the first time in a decade and a half, Winnipeg will have a proper chance to offer its answer.