Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Unbreak (II)

So for those who have not had the chance to, check out the latest contribution to the Norman Einsteins.

Because of such fantastic insights from putting this article together, I decided that it would be best to add a bit more to the conversation. I left out a ton as this piece turned into a 2500-word essay without batting an eye.

Every person share varying insights based on their upbringing and a reverence for the sports culture of the towns they represent. Here are responses of three of the questions that were asked, but were not addressed in depth in the NE article. Again, my most sincere thanks to those who responded.


Q: For you, was there an allegiance to the nearest team in the region before the arrival of the new team? If so, could you describe the change from old to new?

Marcus: For awhile I became a Chiefs fan, especially when my favorite players, Joe Montana and Marcus Allen, joined the team. But it wasn’t the same. They weren’t OUR team and there is such a loyal sports-following tradition here in St. Louis, that I still couldn’t quite claim them wholeheartedly.

I believe our city’s enthusiasm towards football went from lukewarm to extremely high. St. Louisians are sports fans and are very loyal to their local teams.

Jones: No, because watching the NHL as a kid (post-Stars) was an angering experience. And honestly, the closest NHL team to Minnesota was Chicago and their owner (until he died last year) blacked out games. So unless it was the playoffs and the Red Wings were involved, I didn’t follow or cheer for any NHL teams. I had the Packers to fill my winter sports needs.

Law: Not really. For me the switch was from a huge fan of the Association to a Memphis Grizzlies fan, so that makes things difficult for me at times. Why should I watch the Grizzlies get bulldozed by the Sixers or some other mediocre team when I could be watching the Nuggets or Magic – a couple teams I love now, but have no allegiance to – run on national television?


Q: Besides winning games (for those that had done so), what was it about the new team that fans gravitated to in the early days?

Marcus: For us, it was just nice to finally have a team to call our own again. We wanted to show Bill Bidwill arcus:that with proper management, we COULD have a winning football team in St. Louis. The general public understood that it would require a state of the art new stadium and we were all in favor of that.

Jones: A lot of it had to do with a return to professional hockey culture for Minnesotans. As much as we love high school and college hockey, there’s no fighting, little complexity in strategy and at a lower skill level. For the love of God, when the Wild hired Jacque Lemaire, I was excited to see a trap defense. I was excited to see a LACK of scoring!

Early on, it was like a family reunion with tens of thousands of people. We could talk NHL hockey without totally feeling like we were missing out. The hurt lingered and it still lingers, but we at least could celebrate our love of the sport played at its highest level.

Law: I don’t think there has been anything for Memphis fans to gravitate towards just yet. It’s not like basketball was some magical unknown quantity because the Tigers have always been here, so the team didn’t even really make great noise in its inaugural year. Also Pau Gasol is European and often perceived as being “soft” because he played out of position at center almost constantly while in Memphis, so he never really drew a crowd despite being an immense talent. In fact he was resented so badly that even while the Grizzlies were respectable there was very little support for the team.


Q: For teams that experienced a lengthy slide in performance, have there been times that you were tempted to go back to the first love?

Marcus: Many St. Louisians will never forgive Bill Bidwill for moving the St. Louis Cardinals and still casually root for the Arizona Cardinals. But regardless, it does not feel the same as rooting for your very own team. Now that a team has moved away from us, we know that we are lucky to get a second chance and having a team and we don’t want to lose them.

Jones: The Wild has been mired in mediocrity for a few years and while there hasn’t been a disastrous season, I have been frustrated with a lack of organizational progress in a decade. Some of it has to do with the lockout+economy+change-in-ownership for the stalled progress, but a lot of it had to do with the former GM (Doug Riseborough) dragging his feet in free agency and trades.

But I’ve never wanted the Wild to go away or wanted to cheer for another team. Like I’ve said over and over again, I know what it’s like to have no NHL team and that prospect is too crushing to consider.

Law: No, never. It’s not hard for me because there is always a different team on national television waiting for me if I need to see some good basketball. Plus I entered fandom with full recognition that the Grizzlies were going to be bad for a long time.


Additional insights:

Jones: The divorce analogy is thrown around a lot during these situations and while it seems cliché, there is truth to the parallels. Some break-ups are easy and you can see why it didn’t work out (like the Expos leaving Montreal), but others just rip your heart out that it leaves an indelible scar and it impacts all future relationships. So while I was excited for the Wild to play, I couldn’t (and still can’t) look at the team without thinking about those seven years without the NHL.

Law: Memphis doesn’t really uniformly support any other team since its only regional connects I can think of are Atlanta and Charlotte, who haven’t exactly had a storied past few years. The contrast is definitely between Tigers and Grizzlies fans; iIt’s kind of a rectangle-isn’t-always-a-square/square-is-always-a-rectangle type of situation. Grizzlies fans don’t really have any hate for Tigers fans, since they’re mostly drawing from the same pot. On the other hand Tigers fans tend to believe the Grizzlies are a bit of a sideshow or mockery, which might not be an undue opinion.


Now, for those of you who have kept up with the NE essays since I started with the site in September, you recall that the prior entry to this discussed the legion of minority hockey fans within the NHL. Believe me, after going through Jones’ responses, I asked myself “where the heck was this guy last month?”

As a preface, I have always been a Wisconsin sports fan. I was born in Milwaukee and moved to Minnesota when I was a 3. But my father raised me to cheer Packers, Brewers, Bucks, Badgers, etc.

That said, hockey was and is different for me because it’s not a sport, but a religion in Minnesota. Actually, religion isn’t the correct term. It’s more like race or heritage. You can change religions. You can’t stop being African-American, Asian, Latino, etc. As a Blasian (half-black, half-Asian) boy growing up, I felt easily disconnected from my peers at school and in the neighborhood. But we always had hockey. All of that cheesy stuff in the Mighty Ducks movies rang true (except for rollerblading through the Mall of America). We’d wake up, grab our skates, rollerblades (in the summer), our stick and hit the nearest rink, pond or open space for 12 hours of hockey. I lived across the street from the park/rink so it wasn’t odd for me to wake up at 7, get some oatmeal, head over to the rink by 8 and play until dinner (and then head out to play under the lights (unless there was a Stars game that night).

Hockey indoctrinated us early. We all had the same path: pee-wee leagues from ages 4 to 10, traveling teams from 10-14, high school teams until 18, Gophers from 18-21 and the North Stars from 21 until you had too many concussions to play. Just look at the WCHA. It’s the most competitive league in college hockey, comparable to the SEC in football or Big East in basketball. Nearly half of the teams are Minnesota schools. It binds all Minnesotans, whether you’re the rich white kid from the suburbs, the poor Hmong kind from East St. Paul or the country kid from Hibbing.

This is why the North Stars move knocked the wind out of us. We sold out the Civic Center every night. We bought the merchandise. We traded stories about the Broten Brothers and Mike Modano and critiqued Jon Casey’s performance against Detroit. We didn’t just know hockey, we lived out our love every day. The expansion into the south, while expanding the sport to a new generation, has left a lot of fans in the north with a sour taste in their mouths.

I used to write sports for a weekly and I did a story on the fall of the NHL’s popularity in America. I asked an NHL spokesperson why Gary Bettman decided to push into the south at the expense of the northern fans (leaving Winnipeg, Quebec, and Minnesota for half-empty arenas in Phoenix, Nashville and Tampa Bay). His response was that the NHL has been growing in revenue. And while this is true to a certain extent, the larger-market lust crippled the diehard fan’s trust in the overall product. I spent ages 10 to 17 cheering high school and college hockey teams without an outlet in the professional ranks.

There’s a reason why hockey has died out in the television-watching public’s eye: because the NHL abandoned northern 18-34-year-old males in the ‘90s while trying to prop up franchises in cities with transient/older fanbases (Miami, Tampa and Phoenix). So when it comes to watching hockey on T.V., I and many Minnesota males my age don’t religiously watch the Wild—because we didn’t watch it growing up. We’ll follow the games online or read the papers. We’ll go to a game. But we won’t watch it on TV. I ask my friends (one of whom worked for the Wild for three years) if they go out of their way to see the Wild or prop their kids in front of the TV and watch the Wild as a family event. They tell me that while they go to games occasionally and watch a game if there’s nothing else on, it’s not like watching the Twins or Vikings, where you make an event out of it or make time to sit down and watch it. The NHL took an ardent fan base and made it casual—which is why the Xcel Center sells out every game, but the league is stuck on Versus.

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