Ed Watson

For the love of the Game – by Ed Watson

Hanging in my closet, stuffed behind several pieces of unused clothing are two of my treasures.
One is a team jacket.

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It’s made of shiny green nylon, with a standup collar, and a quilted lining. The cuffs and bottom are elasticized to keep out rink chill and there are two gaudy white and golden horizontal stripes on each arm. The circular logo on the front contains a stylized “N” with an arrow, and a star. “North Stars” is printed in large white letters across the back, and on the right arm is a crest that proclaims “Clarence CAMPBELL Conference”.

Most of you know that this is the team jacket of the Minnesota North Stars.

The North Stars entered the NHL as part of the leagues expansion in the 1967-68 season. This team is a good example of perennial issues facing the NHL: Poor planning, questionable management and hubris. All three features were on display this week in Las Vegas as the league announced the name of a new team there.

What I find most irritating about the Vegas expansion is that once again the fans are going to be the losers.

Similar to the Northstar’s expansion the Vegas players will be selected through a draft — meaning — the talent pool will become shallower, again.

Despite all the bafflegab emanating from the league, and its media partners, the game isn’t more entertaining than it once was.

You can allow stretch passes, play 3 on 3 and endlessly debate the role of the goalie, and his oversized pads, but the fact-of-the-matter is that there aren’t enough tough, skilled players to sustain an entertaining product through 82 games. (The later rounds of the playoffs are usually a different story, and I do support recent attempts to crack down on interference.)

It wasn’t that long ago that teams used the “entertainment” argument to defend hikes in ticket prices. Essentially, the argument was that hockey is just another “entertainment option” and ticket prices for live events of similar length were of like value.

Baloney.

If it’s a question of value, for money, hockey is at the wrong end of the entertainment lineup.

Take my neighbour, for example.  We will call her “M”.  M is a widow. M had two son’s in minor hockey and has grown to love the game at the grassroots level. She’s become a Canucks fan and can inform you about the team’s newest acquisition — or emerging talent.

Until this year she’d never seen an actual NHL game. M is not well off, she works as a volunteer at a social agency and gets by on very little. (I suspect Trevor Linden spends more on coiffing his hair than M spends on groceries.)

In February M’s kids got together and decided to send her to a game. She lives in Victoria so it’s an overnight stay. Her daughter went along, as an escort. The budget could afford only afford nose bleed seats.

I want to stress how much of a big deal it was for this family to pool their resources and send their mum to watch a professional hockey game.

Murphy’s law kicked in regardless of karma — The Canucks were outshot 17-4 in the first period and went on to lose 5-2. Analysts described it as one of the Canucks worst efforts of the season.

Value for money? I don’t think so.

Regardless, not unlike 10’s of thousands of other Canadians who are being sold a bill of goods about how great the NHL is, M remains a fan. She is watching Canucks hockey because it’s part of her culture, her being. The marginal fans, the kind you’ll get in Vegas, wont be back after a game like that.

By the way, the Canucks lost that game to Minnesota. But it wasn’t the Minnesota North Stars.

The wheeling and dealing around the North Stars reads like something out of a conspiracy novel and involved not just the Stars but the creation of teams in Anaheim and San Jose.

The North Stars played 26 seasons in Minnesota, and twice made it to the Stanley Cup final.(Compared to 3 times in 45 years for the Canucks) Despite their cup runs, overall, they weren’t a strong team. Attendance waned. At one point the team landed in the hands of a NHL governor named Norm Green, one of the initial investors in the Calgary Flames, who apparently wanted to move the franchise to Anaheim.  The league was negotiating with Disney over the creation of the Mighty Ducks so Green opted to make a move to Dallas.

The birth of the Dallas Stars.

Minnesota fans were outraged by the move, particularly when their former team won a Stanley cup just a few short years after the move. A plague to clubs in many warm weather markets the Dallas Stars went on to have troubles with attendance and money. (British Columbian Tom Gaglardi now owns the Stars and has turned things around. Gaglardi bought the team after he lost a fight with Francesco Aquilini over ownership of the Canucks. After seeing what Gaglardi has done with the Stars you could conclude that Canucks fans lost too.)

Perhaps even more bizarre, shortly after the North Stars left St. Paul a group bought the Winnipeg Jets and tried to move that team to Minnesota. That deal fell apart and the Jets moved to Phoenix as part of the NHL’s sun belt expansion.

Years later the most popular thing about hockey in Arizona is player Shane Doan. Doan’s Arizona Coyotes are on life support, but that doesn’t stop the league from expanding.

I digress.

Back to that night in February, with my neighbour watching, the Canucks lost to the Minnesota Wild. Just 7 seasons after the departure of the North Stars the Wild were on the ice in Minnesota. What changed? The injection of public money and loans for a new arena.

In the closet next to my North Stars jacket is another treasure.

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This one is an old Canucks sweater. On the chest is that hideous orange logo of a stylized skate. The sweater is frayed around the edges and on the back is an outline of number 13. The number was originally created using black hockey tape. And the sweater is also very small. It’s been washed so many times that I cant read the sizing information on the tab sewn into the collar. I bought it for my son, about 30 years ago. He played road hockey in it, as did his two brothers. All 4 of us continue to play hockey recreationally.

If my Northstars jacket is a symbol of the hockey business, the Canucks jersey is a symbol of hockey’s heart. I love the game, not the business.

I wish that mattered to the NHL.

PS— There was plenty of hype about the NHL being the first professional sports league to establish a team in Las Vegas. Wrong. The first team was the Las Vegas Posse of the CFL. In the 1990’s the Canadian Football League tried expanding into the US. It didn’t turn out well. The Posse folded after one season.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Gary Barndt November 25, 2016 at 10:49 pm

    Well said Ed Barndtman

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