Thursday, September 20, 2007

Winnipeg hockey media continues to bash Phoenix

For the second straight September, the Phoenix Coyotes paid a visit to their former home. For the second time, they went down to defeat. Is there a spell being cast on the team once known as the Winnipeg Jets to never win a game of any kind there again? Highly doubt it. After all, in this case, it is only the preseason.

If you have followed the National Hockey League for as long as I have, you know that this sport is the only one of the major four whose birthplace doesn't reside in the United States. At the same time, it's generally colder in Canada even during the summer season. Understood. But what I have seen time and time again from the Canadian media and that nation's fans really has gotten on my nerves.

While the game of hockey is held in such a high regard in Canada as if it is a religion, countless people in the Great White North constantly complain and bash Americans for not embracing it at the very same level in their country. At the same time, Canadians unjustifiably blame the United States for the NHL's problems. Forget about it just being sad to see, it is downright appalling.

On many occasions, the worst culprits of the Canadian media who regularly bash the American fans and media for what is wrong with the NHL I can safely say are Toronto Sun hockey columnist Al Strachan and Toronto Star hockey columnist Damien Cox. Oh look... surprise, surprise! They're both from Toronto, the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe. I don't know what city has a more inflated ego in making such exaggerated claims. Would it be Toronto for hockey? Or would it be Dallas claiming they have "America's Team" in the Dallas Cowboys? Oops, that's right, I forgot. Dallas has the most popular cheerleaders who have their own annual swimsuit calendar. Did I forget to mention that the Lone Star State shoves their famous slogan up my butt, "don't mess with Texas"? Um how about this slogan for y'all in Texas, don't f*** with New York.

Excuse my mouth there, but let's get back to the issue here.

The NHL has never been on the same stage as the National Football League, Major League Baseball or even the National Basketball Association. That's a fair statement to make in terms of it being the case. Before Gary Bettman left his NBA post and out of the shadow of David Stern, the NHL didn't have a commissioner. Bettman's predecessor John Ziegler held the title as league president. Not exactly the best of people to run the league, hockey as a major sport was barely on the radar in the United States under his watch. Can you recall there being a national television contract to regularly broadcast their games on CBS, NBC or ABC? I don't. There was CBS' coverage of the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals where the Islanders won their first championship. NBC televised Mario Lemieux's memorable 1990 All-Star performance in front of his home crowd.

So there were a few instances it was not a problem to remember the NHL making it onto national television in the United States. But the huge problem was the lack of consistent exposure of the game on a national level. In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the NHL was most seen on the regional network channels and had basically regional hardcore following. Back then, the southern-most NHL city was Los Angeles.

As Wayne Gretzky stormed to atop the NHL stage while playing in Edmonton, most fans in the United States seldom caught a glimpse of him on live television unless he was playing your hometown team. "The Great One" became Canada's hockey son and there was no other household name bigger than Gretzky.

Back then, player salaries was never a serious topic of public conversation, but imagine what Gretzky in his prime would command in today's NHL. We cannot begin to imagine. But as the league began to show signs of increasing revenue and growing as a business, the economic landscape changed. Then came higher operation costs, a weak Canadian dollar and higher player salaries. Some of the smaller cities in the NHL like Edmonton had an increasingly difficult time meeting the price of retaining the most-talented players. It would prove to be the case when then-Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington made what many believe was the unthinkable trade of Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9, 1988. The NHL as we know it changed forever.

Gretzky's move south to the City of Angels would help professional hockey grow in the Sun Belt enough where expansion teams were placed in cities that never had an NHL team. If it wasn't for #99, chances are there would be no Anaheim Mighty Ducks as the Kings' regional rival. I cannot say for sure that the Tampa Bay Lightning or Florida Panthers would've necessarily ever been born. Same could be said for the Minnesota North Stars finding Dallas as a viable new home. And, Atlanta might not have been given a second chance either with the present-day Thrashers.

We head to a city in the Canadian Prairie region about 55 miles north of the United States border. With about three-quarters of a million people, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba once had an NHL team to call their own for 17 years. They've had one of the very best legion of fans anywhere when it comes to making the game of hockey an important part of their lives.

Setbacks in economic parity across the NHL led to the demise of two Canadian franchises and eventual relocation south of the border in back-to-back seasons. In each case, it was financially difficult to remain in operation in Winnipeg and Québec City and by July 1, 1996, Canada lost two of their original World Hockey Association members previously absorbed into the NHL to Phoenix and Denver respectively. It was like a member of the family died in both cases. Understandably so.

With these franchise shifts to the southern United States where there hasn't been a long-time following of NHL teams of their own, lingering bitterness has never ceased. The health of the NHL also began to suffer economically as team expenses on player salaries took up an increasingly higher percentage of their payrolls and away from other important parts of operating a franchise. When the Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, it has been thought to be last time this Canadian city would ever see NHL hockey. Same can be said for Québec City when the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche.

But an unhealthy NHL led to a crippling lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-2005 season as the owners and players were far apart on how to share any revenue they'd get. In the end, the owners got a salary cap and a number of restrictions to keep spending under control and help try leveling the playing field between the big markets such as New York City, Toronto, Philadelphia and Detroit and the smaller markets such as Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the other five Canadian NHL cities compete. Ironically on this very day, for the first time since 1976, the Canadian and American dollars were even in value.

Before this new collective bargaining agreement was reached, there was no way that Winnipeg could stand a chance at regaining membership into the NHL. Since June 1, 2003, Winnipeg resident Darren Ford created the Return of the Jets Campaign web site to rally fans and the local business community together to aid an attempt to bring another NHL team to the city. While Ford's passion and dedication for the Jets and the campaign cause is unquestioned, some fans and the Winnipeg media have bashed the city of Phoenix for not only taking their beloved Jets, but not showing the same support they did.

Support for the Coyotes had shown much promise in the first five years the franchise has been in Phoenix where the team was competitive and making the playoffs. But with the increasing operation difficulties of playing in a basketball arena with obstructive seating and no share of the revenue from the luxury suites inside US Airways Center, the team was forced to shed payroll with the most pricey players. They included the most popular and productive Coyotes in Keith Thachuk and Jeremy Roenick. Soon thereafter, the franchise was sold and only made the playoffs once in the last six seasons, none since 2002. Inept hockey decisions led to the team's demise on the ice and fans have stayed away in droves. Not even a new arena for the Coyotes built in neighboring Glendale, Arizona could stop the bleeding. The lockout has proven to have had very harmful effects on the fan base in Phoenix. The highly successful Phoenix Suns or the one-year return of Roenick donning the brick red jersey to rekindle interest in the team hasn't helped the Coyotes' fan support either.

Despite some of the legitimate understanding of why the Phoenix Coyotes have struggled in recent years, they are everybody's punching bag. Even with the most revered man to play hockey as part of team ownership and as a full-time head coach, Gretzky's squad isn't expected to have any success. The Hockey News has the Coyotes listed in their 2007-2008 yearbook to finish dead last among the 30 NHL teams.

The ones doing the punching and throwing stones also come from north of the border and yes, even in Winnipeg. "Why does Phoenix have a team?", they argue. "They have no fans." Here's where it really sets me off. Then we wonder if some fans are brainwashed by the media. Ready to hear what was said today?

As we've heard for months about the Nashville Predators' future looking cloudy with the "for sale" sign posted outside Sommet Center and the relocation talk surfacing. That team may stay in Music City as a local investors group might rescue that franchise. But the relentless Canadian mouthpieces continue to bark up their collective storm of hate towards the Sun Belt.

"You see, we probably don't even know just how many NHL franchises are on the brink of collapse," Winnipeg Free Press sports columnist Randy Turner ranted. "So who's next? Phoenix? Atlanta? To be honest, all this speculation is old news, too. Of course it's no secret that hockey isn't working in Arizona or Tennessee or Georgia. How shocking."

Okay, Mr. Turner. I guess when the Coyotes are horrible on the ice and the fans have become dischanted with the team, time to close the doors on Phoenix, right? Funny, nobody in Canada dares to suggest for the Boston Bruins and especially the Chicago Blackhawks to fold because their fans aren't attending games either. Oh yeah, they're Original Six teams. Oooo, we don't ever utter that retraction word with either of those two teams, do we?

From the same newspaper that covered Wednesday night's 3-2 Toronto Maple Leafs preseason victory over the Coyotes at MTS Centre, another writer covering the game made this arrogant statement in the game notes section. Gary Lawless wanted to scream at us that no Phoenix media made the trip to Winnipeg for the preseason game.

"The Coyotes came to Winnipeg but brought no media. No print reporters, no radio team and no TV broadcasters. The Moose, an AHL team, travel with two print reporters and a radio broadcaster at all times. This won't be news to you, but there's no contest between the two markets. Winnipeg loves hockey and Phoenix doesn't care."

Excuse me, Mr. Lawless, but did you ever think that during the PRESEASON, it is that important for the Coyotes, the Arizona Republic, the East Valley Tribune, anyone from FOX Sports Arizona or the local television stations to send any reporters to a relatively meaningless preseason road game? Given that the Arizona Diamondbacks are in a bitter fight to win the National League West division title, I cannot say a preseason hockey game in Canada is more significant. Winnipeg has what, the Blue Bombers in a professional football league that's not the NFL, an American Hockey League franchise that is at Triple A calibre in comparison to Major League Baseball and a minor league baseball team few here even know by name.

There was Phoenix media present in Winnipeg for last year's game because there was much more significance behind it. I don't need to explain what that is. What sense of urgency do I find this time around for these media organizations to send reporters to a neutral site preseason game? I'm satisfied enough with an Associated Press recap, a box score and game notes of THIS game from the local beat writer from his or her home base.

I have said this on a number of forums I visit where especially many Canadian fans express their narrow-minded (and sometimes ignorant) views of the Coyotes. Canada has much fewer professional sports options on their platter than the United States. Hockey is the top sport in Canada and that's fine. I don't have an issue with that. Same with their solid year-round hockey coverage. All the power to you. You want a medal for in-depth preseason hockey coverage that even spring training baseball in the United States gets?

Ever since the Return of the Jets Campaign was launched four years ago, I have given Mr. Ford my unwavering support. I want a new Jets team in Winnipeg just as much as he does. I may not live in his town nor had I shared the same hockey experiences, but I certainly appreciate from afar what Winnipeg has done in their making hockey a part of the fabric of their city. When the Jets were there, I had appreciation their team. Fans there have every right to be angry with the loss of their beloved team. They have every right to be upset with how the NHL has struggled to increase its potential league-wide. But then there are those that bash the city of Phoenix for why they no longer have their hockey team. That's where I have a big bone to pick with Canadian fans, not just singling out Winnipeg hockey fans. In fact, I interact with Winnipeg fans fairly often where they know where I stand with any issues and there's a mutual respect for between my views and theirs.

Yet I continue to hear this garbage from members of the Canadian media such as Gary Lawless.

To quote a friend from the Valley of the Sun, it's funny how the Canadian media and the public at large feels the need to ask for our apology at every turn for the fact that their teams moved south of the border or new teams were awarded to cities they feel are unworthy. Like they're superior or something.

That's right, no Phoenix media, so Phoenix doesn't care about hockey. What a load of crap. The Canadian media at its finest. For once in your careers, you and your colleagues across Canada can just shut your giant pie hole and worry about your own damn teams.

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