For our friends north of the border, it’s a week poised to go down as one of the greatest in Canada’s history, ranking right up there with the discovery of back bacon and when Alanis Morissette moved to Los Angeles. (Isn’t it ironic that I made fun of you, Alanis?)
The Vancouver Canucks are poised to become the first Canadian outfit to win the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens did it back in 1993 by beating Barry Melrose, Wayne Gretzky and the L.A. Kings. That’s so long ago that Don Cherry’s outfits were only one generation removed from being socially acceptable.
It’s also so long ago that the league landscape was populated by small-market teams like the Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers. Now, one of them is returning from the dead.
After two years of rumors involving faltering Sun Belt teams Phoenix and Atlanta, the long-waited announcement became official Tuesday: the Thrashers were abandoning Georgia for Manitoba, bringing the NHL back to a city that last hosted a game in 1996. Canada is back up to 7 NHL franchises.
Though Jets fans hoped and prayed a team would someday come back, it’s unlikely that many would have anticipated such a thing actually becoming a reality. But more than anything else, two things made that possible:
1. The Canadian dollar’s marked improvement against the American dollar from where it was in the ’90s. Or maybe we should consider it the American dollar’s marked drop. Either way, the countries are more evenly balanced than they were before. Good to see that NAFTA thing worked out for someone.
2. The NHL lockout of 2005, which led to the current salary cap which allows a more balanced playing field for small-market team, and is what Winnipeg fans can specifically thank for the former Blackhawks populating their roster. (We let you have Bobby Hull the first time you came around; this time you get Byfuglien and Ladd. The birthing and raising of Jonathan Toews will be accepted as your trade-off).
Most hoseheads will point out that the move is evidence that Gary Bettman’s great mid-90s Southern experiment is a total failure, but I think that is an unfair assessment — and believe me, defending Gary Bettman is very low on my list of things I aspire to do in life. The idiot is starting the Finals games in Vancouver at 5 p.m. local time and is going to keep Winnipeg in the Southeast Division.
Oh yeah, I was defending Gary Bettman. Sorry. Got distracted. Anyway, hockey is working some places in the south. The Carolina Hurricanes have won a Cup, and the state of North Carolina has even managed to produce NHL talent like Hawks rookie Ben Smith. Nashville caught Preds fever this spring, and it looks like the franchise has found a solid footing there. The Stars suck right now, but the team has been relatively popular and there is a pretty good rec and youth hockey scene in the Metroplex.
Thing is, NOTHING ever works in Atlanta, the most fickle sports town in America. The Thrashers are now the second NHL team to leave town, joining the Flames, who ditched it in 1980. The Braves couldn’t even sell out playoff games by the end of their 14-season reign of dominance — Turner Field was overrun by Cubs fans in 2003. Save for Georgia and Georgia Tech football, Atlantans are a lazy, uninspired lot. I’m not entirely sure what they do for entertainment since attending sporting events is not very high on the list. In their defense, there was a diehard core of Thrasher fans that even included the likes of Lil’ Jon. However, those people were done in by terrible ownership and marketing in a town where you have no chance if you don’t inspire the lazies to sample your product.
In Winnipeg, there will be no difficulty finding a way to inspire fans who have waited a decade-and-a half for that product to come back. Inspiring free agents, on the other hand, may be an entirely different ball of wax. Winnipeg’s nightlife probably pales in comparison to Atlanta’s (in more ways than one). But that can be worried about later. For now, this figures to kick off a fortnight of epic celebration in the Great White North.