The season is a week old and we already have a moment that will linger in the psyche of hockey fans for years to come. Anyone who caught the pregame ceremonies in Winnipeg before their first game can attest to an atmosphere that looked like equal parts anticipation, excitement, accomplishment, and pure joy. You know those “moments” that we all watch sports to witness? Winnipeg had a few of those moments before they even dropped the first puck at MTS Center. They were bringing the goose bumps in full force–it didn’t even matter who won the game.
The event was everything everyone expected from the hockey craved market finally satisfying its fifteen year hunger for NHL hockey. Winnipeg looked like it was filled with fanatical supporters that were pouring their heart out onto the ice for a team they had already accepted as their own. It looked like a place that never should have lost their team in the first place.
The scene was everything I expected it to be—and so very much more. For years we’ve heard from fans how Gary Bettman was a Canadian-hating fascist and moving the Winnipeg Jets to the southwestern United States was one of the biggest mistakes of his tenure (funny how things changed for a day). Winnipeg fans have flooded Coyotes message boards and Phoenix arena newspaper with hateful comments that had lost its message. The message went from “we deserve hockey” to “you don’t deserve hockey.” For someone who has been to Jobing.com Arena, interacted with the fans, and genuinely enjoyed games in Arizona, the militant fans were off-putting to say the least.
Well, the squeaky wheel finally got its grease.
For months, I had looked at the situation from a different perspective. I’ve been watching everything go down from the standpoint of a fan desperately trying to protect their team; while others pillaged with no remorse. What have fans had to experience in Phoenix over the last few years? Fans in Winnipeg had no problem ripping out the hearts of a fanbase—even though they had gone though the exact same, traumatic fate fifteen years ago. It was amazing to see how quickly attitudes could change when the skate was on the other foot.
All of this brings us to the backers of the Blueland. What about the diehards in Atlanta? (Go ahead, insert your “there are fans in Atlanta” joke here). What has the beginning of the season meant to Thrashers fans? We saw the Stanley Cup Final atmosphere on the corner of Portage and Hargrave. But what about the dead silence of Phillips Arena on opening night? There may not be millions of fans who were devastated by the news of True North moving the franchise to Manitoba—but the season tickets holders were no different than you or me. And opening night is just the beginning of a silent first season without the NHL. That first winter without NHL hockey is a feeling that Winnipeg residents should be able to remember quite clearly.
I couldn’t stop wondering: what if this was me? What if this was my team? What if I kept going to games and putting faith that they’d win sometime before I die—only to have circumstances beyond my control rip my team away from me? Putting myself in their shoes inevitably led to a helpless feeling.
But as of October 9th, all of that will be in the past. Fans in Georgia will be left to choose between Nashville, Carolina, the ECHL, or another sport. Jerseys and shirts will be moved to the “vintage” section of shop.nhl.com to sit alongside the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques. It’s over and done with. Opening night wasn’t just the beginning for a franchise’s rebirth—it was the final nail in the coffin for hockey fans of the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers.
From the days leading up until opening night in the ‘Peg, hockey pulsed through the heartbeat of the city. 685,000 people that make up the town had been waiting for a decade and a half for the return of NHL hockey one day. Maybe a better word would be “hoping.” From the time the Jets were uprooted from the Manitoban capitol—there were no promises that NHL hockey would ever come back. But with the falling American dollar and relentless demands from fans, the pressure built. All of that built up pressure was released in a euphoric, jubilant celebration when the MTS Center in downtown Winnipeg opened its doors on the 2011-12 season.
But what about in Atlanta?
I’ve spent the last few months thinking about the human aspect of the move. I’ve thought about Thrashers fans that have given their time, money, and heart to a team and sport that took work to follow. It’s hard to be a fan in the Sunbelt—there’s no two ways about it. So when fans work so hard to be a fan and they have the sport ripped away, it can scorn fans to the point that they’ll never return.
Some diehards in Winnipeg and other traditional markets may not care—but this is a very real problem that may take some time to understand. When the Jets left Winnipeg, it was only a team that left town. Hockey stayed. Youth hockey wasn’t in peril because the NHL team left town. Hockey Night in Canada ratings wouldn’t die on the vine because the Jets migrated south. Can the same be said for hockey in Atlanta today? Probably not.
Sure, there are fans in Georgia that are going to live and die with the sport. Maybe the Gwinnett Gladiators will attract a few dozen of the diehards to watch ECHL hockey for a season or two. But without the constant promotion and publicity of the NHL in the market, hockey will fade (even more) into the background.
That doesn’t mean Winnipeg is a better city than Atlanta. It means that the sports culture is different. The Atlanta Journal Constitution will take the small space that was dedicated to the Thrashers and fill it with yet another article about the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets or Atlanta Falcons. Fans that already had to actively seek out hockey news will have to look even harder. And eventually, they’ll stop. At some point, it gets to the point that it’s just not worth it to channel their inner detective just to find more than a box score.
It hard not to feel bad for the ardent fans that have been left behind. In an era that the league is so desperately trying to “grow the game,” I look at the people left in hockey’s equivalent of a ghost town. For those who passionately loved their team before it was taken away from them—I hope it doesn’t sour them on the sport as a whole. Some people will say “who cares, they had a chance to support their team.” I know better. I know there were plenty of people who loved the team and supported the organization with their time, energy, and yes, money. Clearly there weren’t enough of them. But no matter, for those who have loved and lost, watching their team’s rebirth in Winnipeg was nothing more than bittersweet.
Hopefully, as time goes on, the sweet taste of hockey stays and the bitter taste of business fades away.
I’m glad that Winnipeg finally has a hockey team again because that place proved yet again that they deserve a hockey team to support. Selling out three years worth of season tickets in 17 minutes is an insane piece of evidence that measures the passion of the fervent fanbase. There’s no way a hockey fan could have watched Jets fans welcome the game back to Winnipeg and not feel like this was the right thing to do. The NHL belongs in Winnipeg.
You might just have to wait awhile before you tell that to hockey fans in Atlanta.