Don't knock hockey in the South. NC road maintenance, on the other hand, is fair game.
Ouch, Hockey Night In Canada. Ouch.
It’s no secret that Winnipeg is trying to turn around the underperforming team they acquired at the beginning of the summer. They fired most of Atlanta’s staff and spent the summer rebranding the team completely as the Winnipeg Jets, even marking each preseason first as history on Twitter. Winnipeg’s mayor said he was glad to see hockey back “where it belongs”, dust-ups about whether or not the former Jets’ – now the Coyotes’ – retired numbers should be retired for the Thrashers/new Jets occurred, and arrangements were made for Winnipeg to be heavily featured on Hockey Night In Canada. The ghosts of the Thrashers slowly faded as the new Jets’ staff made every effort to distance themselves from the specter of a failed southern market team.
And then, tonight, the Jets debuted, losing 5-1 to the Canadiens. The HNIC announcers’ decided to spend a significant portion of the game discussing the enthusiasm of the fans in Winnipeg, the support for the game in the region, and the likelihood that the Jets would find themselves playing for an adoring crowd every night. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, all of this discussion was speckled with sutble and not-so-subtle swipes at Atlanta in particular and Southern markets in general. Hockey, according to those announcers, doesn’t belong in the South. They don’t appreciate it there; the Thrashers had to scrimp to sell tickets, and players didn’t like playing for the dwindling crowd. The Jets will perform better in Winnipeg, because people care about hockey there. Hockey belongs in Canada. Hockey is Canada’s game.
I wonder at the attitude so many people hold that hockey has no place in the Southern United States. It’s no secret that when the Canes moved to Raleigh in 1997 (or rather, Raleigh by way of Greensboro), the game didn’t have a foothold in that part of the US at all. People in Raleigh eat, breathe, and sleep basketball. Who needs hockey when you’ve got Duke, UNC, and NC State? Not to mention the Durham Bulls, the Tarheels women’s soccer team, NASCAR, and the Carolina Panthers. Well, okay, maybe we shouldn’t mention the Panthers. Regardless, the Raleigh area was full up with people from all walks of life, who were attached to all different sports.
It took several years for hockey to catch on in Raleigh. I distinctly remember, in 2002, the Hurricanes going to the Cup final for the first time, and many people in the Raleigh area being surprised to find out that the state even had a hockey team. The News & Observer all but said, “Hey, you know there’s a team here, right? And they’re doing okay? There’s this Cup thing, it’s kind of a big deal, and they might get it!”
But in no small part because Raleigh’s such a sports town, hockey grew. Traditions unique to the South were established; you can’t exactly tailgate a January game in Winnipeg. The team got better, even winning the Cup. Post-Cup, as the team struggled, fans stuck by them, many of them identifying as diehards. By the time the All-Star game was hosted by Raleigh last year, it was no secret that Raleigh had become a hockey town. Maybe not exclusively, but enough that the Hurricanes have a steady supply of season ticket holders, a solid core of fans, and a set of traditions all their own. There are kids growing up right now who’ve watched the Hurricanes for their entire 14-year history in Raleigh. Some of them are going on to learn to play hockey.
And Raleigh’s not unique in that. Seth Jones, one of the top prospects for the 2013 draft, grew up watching Modano and the Stars. Nashville’s got its share of hockey fans, too, or so I here. And the Lightning saw a huge jump in season ticket sales this year.
The story in Atlanta is different, obviously. The Thrashers aren’t the first hockey team to fail in Atlanta, but they may very well be the last. From the perspective of a Canes fan, though, I see that as an individual failure, not a failure of a region. There’s no shortage of Hurricanes fans who love the game, understand it, and were born and raised in the South. At my sister’s tiny wedding in Marion, North Carolina, there were three people in Hurricanes gear, and the season hadn’t even started yet.
I think Canada has every right to be proud of hockey, and I’m happy for Winnipeg that they have a team again. But when I look at the diversity of sports in the United States, and the various ways each sport has grown and gotten a foothold in different areas of the country, I can’t help but question HNIC’s attitude towards Southern markets. Sure, we’re smaller and newer. Absolutely, many of us don’t live for hockey the way some Canadian fans do. But that doesn’t mean all Southern markets are apathetic and don’t know the game. It doesn’t meant Atlanta fans deserved to lose their team. It doesn’t mean the sport can’t grow and thrive in all kinds of different markets.
No place will ever be home for me the way Raleigh was, growing up. Let me tell you a secret: I’m not from Raleigh. I was born in Naperville and moved to Raleigh from Maryland when I was 7, the same year the Hurricanes moved from Hartford to Raleigh. But I love Raleigh more than any other region in the country, and I am proud to have the accent and the memories that I have.
Hockey may not have been born in the South, but a lot of those of us in and from the South love it all the same. Speaking as a Southern hockey fan, I’d love if our neighbors to the North embraced that, rather than belittling their sport’s growth.
And hey, come down and tailgate with us sometime. You’d be surprised by how much we have in common.