In 1997 I remember listening to some DJ on the radio make the announcement that the Winnipeg Jets were officially packing up their sleepy prairie home and moving — along with a legal name change — to the snowbird capital of the southwest: Phoenix, Arizona.
Gary Bettman’s evil plan to destroy the NHL from the inside was in full swing.
At this point I was no longer following hockey regularly. My boss at work would fill me in on the odd detail as we sanitized teats and placed a vacuum-like device on cows to suck milk from their udders (I worked on a dairy farm). Names like Messier, Brashear and Mogilny punctuated the conversation, replacing names such as Linden, Bure and Mclean, and each time I wondered at the status of my once beloved Canucks.
At this point in my life I was more consumed with skateboarding, punk rock and making enough money to fuel my Plymouth Turismo, than hockey. Hockey, I believed at the time, was for children and I was the consummate burgeoning adult. Later in my twenties, while suffering from an undergraduate induced bout of depression, the success of the Westcoast Express spawned a rekindled passion for the game and my team — the Vancouver Canucks.
Back in 1997, I was only vaguely aware of concepts such as free-trade and globalization. In the hockey world, as my passion for the game lay dormant, a new economic incentive energized the move of Canadian small market franchises (namely the Jets and the Nordiques) to big market cities south of the border. During the Chretien years, due to the low Canadian dollar and the fact that NHL wages were paid out in American currency, teams in the small markets could no longer stay afloat without generous subsidies from the league. Without a revenue sharing system (the sacred cow of Gary Bettman’s which was finally brought to roost after the 2005 lockout) the team couldn’t remain competitive. With the Winnipeg Arena in disrepair and the cash strapped civic, provincial and federal governments unwilling to pony up the dough for a new barn the Jet landed on the open market.
Very quickly they were to become the Phoenix Coyotes.
Not that I cared much at the time (remember I was more concerned with buying strings for my Strat and losing my virginity) but I recall thinking how ridiculous the Jets move sounded. Hockey in the desert? It was akin to putting a square peg in a round hole. If your familiar with the history of the game you know its safe to say it’s not the most ubiquitous of professional sport. While we live in a diverse world where technology can support a human being in space and airplanes and cars can travel at the speed of sound, it is obtuse to believe that the manufacturing of a culture-of-hockey may occur simply because machines exist that can manufacture ice.
When the Phoenix Coyotes rolled into town Tuesday night, with superstar coach Wayne Gretzky in tow, I was reminded of a time when the Winnipeg Jets were the natural rivals of the Canucks. Back then, Dale Hawerchuk battled nose-to-nose with Stan Smyl for Smythe division sub-supremacy. The Jets and the Canucks were the second tier of the division in the 80’s as the Flames and the Oilers, the two best teams in the league at the time, battled for the cup each year (either Edmonton or Calgary represented the Campbell Conference in the finals consecutively from 1983-1990). The Jets and the Canucks acted as bottom feeders in the division, but as cellar dwellers in Canadian markets there was a certain charm to their rivalry — not to mention a mutual hatred of all things related to Alberta hockey.
The fans of Winnipeg and the fans of Vancouver served as bookends to the Wild Rose hockey that dominated the league in the 80’s. As the 1990’s dawned and the iron curtain dropped a new spark of hope illuminated the two cities. Vancouver saw the emergence of superstar Russian Pavel Bure and Winnipeg saw a new Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne, smash the rookie-season goal scoring record and incite new enthusiasm in the fan base. The 90’s also saw a fall from grace for the Alberta based teams so for a short time it was the Jets and Canucks who dominated the northeast.
Thursday’s games turned into a goaltenders dual with Ilya Bryzgalov of the Coyotes letting in one goal to Blue’s shutout. The Canucks power play was off on the night but the penalty kill was sound. In many ways it was a textbook game. Sound, technical hockey with no mistakes resulting in two points for the home team. For the Canucks it was almost a perfect game, sterile in preparation, precise in execution. For the Coyotes it was a learning curve. An example of a young team built by a superstar (coach Wayne Gretzky) who is still searching for that all elusive fifth Stanley Cup.
What is remarkable about the modern NHL is that it has lost its rogue sheen. 1967-94 (1994 was the year of the first lockout) may have been the age of the great hockey dynasties, but it was also full of pocket rivalries (Nordiques vs Montreal and obviously Vancouver vs Winnipeg are a few that come to mind) that epitomized the gaming element in hockey.
It was also an age of quirky teams (California Golden Seals and the WHA imports for example) and superstars (Lafleur, Gretzky, Lemeiux to name a few) who created a culture of hockey for a populous aching for something to call their own. The Canadian cultural hegemony. The same can be said of baseball and football in the U.S. and soccer in the U.K. The commercialization of sports, while inevitable, came long after the sport had begun to sink deep roots in the heritage of the land and her people.
Take this excerpt from an early newspaper account of hockey: “If we turn towards the country, we are at once struck by the almost total absence of stone throwing boys, upon whose characteristics and mode of life we remarked in a former article. What has become of them? The nearest pond answers this question; they are playing hockey on the ice and occasionally mimicking the mistakes of such among their betters as are not quite at home on skates.”
There is one thing that people forget about hockey, and sport in general, in the beginning it had nothing to do with money; it had nothing to do with product; it had nothing to do with entertainment (at least for the fans). Hockey is a game by and for players. People that share a common bond for healthy competition who come together for the sole purpose of merriment and escapade. Or in other words, to have fun. It is something that cannot be measure and weighed andcommodified.
A bunch of strangers who pay money to show up and watch you play a game you would otherwise play for free is only an added bonus. Long before the money there was the sport; long before the desert there was the frozen pond.
Hockey in the south is like trying to breed Orca whales in captivity. Money, research and technology are irrelevant when considering an intangible that cannot be explained by science. It is the intangible of the old Jets that I missed on Thursday night. Yes we won the game, but in so many more ways we have lost.