May 17, 1995:
A Tale of Two River Towns...
By LAWRENCE KOOTNIKOFF
Looking out over the wind-blasted, ice-covered St. Lawrence in February, you'd almost think you could skate across the snowy ice flows to Levis. Maybe that's one reason people in "la Vieille Capital," as Quebec City is known and where I spent two years, take their hockey so seriously.
Up river, younger brother Montreal is bigger, brasher and more cosmopolitan. Montreal has business, nightlife, baseball, tensions between French and English, and the storied Stanley Cup-winning traditions of les Canadiens. Quebec City has civil servants, walls and cobbled streets, the Plains of Abraham, the wide, quiet expanse of the St. Lawrence, and since 1979, les Nordiques.
The Nordiques joined the league one year before the Referendum, tapping into Quebec nationalism by literally wrapping themselves in the blue and white fleurdelise. But sixteen years later, with the P.Q. government facing defeat in Referendum II, the Nordiques may desert and move to the hockey hotbed of Denver (!?).
The situation is the same across the country in another river town, Winnipeg.
As fans rally at the legislature and organize a save-the-Jets fund, a last-minute deal to keep the team seems unlikely. It looks like both teams will head south as U.S. dollars continue their take-over of our national game. "So what?," many say. "It's a business like any other." But that's just the point. NHL hockey is not a business like any other - neither is any major league sport, for that matter.
MacMillan-Blodel, Cominco and other corporations don't sell tickets to the gallery of the stock exchange and expect non-shareholding spectators to cheer as stocks rises, or chant the name of their favourite vice-president. How many kids can name the front office staff of MCI Communications? But you can bet your little one's 6 a.m. Saturday morning practices he knows what kind of stick Pavel Bure uses, or Kirk McLean's career play-off record.
A major-league team demands our loyalty, which it needs to survive, and gets it. And in Canada, with our long, cold winters and our frozen rivers, hockey has a grip on our souls like no other sport. So let's banish this fiction that a National Hockey League franchise is no different than a widget factory or a Starbuck's coffee shop.
An NHL team is as much a part of a community as a symphony, fine museums or parks. Some people think these things are a waste of money. But even in this selfish era that seems to apply the bottom line to everything we do, most of us believe they make our communities better places to live.
There are important differences, of course: parks and symphonies aren't supposed to make money, while professional hockey teams are.
But the NHL's marketing geniuses may end up outsmarting themselves: many standard business practices necessary in the rough-and-tumble private sector break down when applied to professional sports. A successful business will sometimes move to another city in search of even greater profits. Or it may produce a second-rate product to trim costs if that means more money in the owner's pockets.
But loyal hockey fans expect loyalty in return. And they soon lose interest in a team that settles for second-best: witness the decline in support for the Edmonton Oilers after Peter Pocklington decided that Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and the rest of that incredible championship team were "depreciating assets" rather than athletic artists at the peak of their greatness.
There's no question the NHL needs to control spiraling costs. But both owners (proof that capitalism does not necessarily favour intelligence) and players have rejected a successful formula used by professional basketball: salary caps for players and revenue sharing to aide teams in smaller cities.
Rivers run through our history, and through all our "small market" hockey towns. It may be too late for Quebec City and Winnipeg. But the NHL must find a way to keep major-league hockey in its Canadian heartland.
The NHL's future may have names like Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Denver, but it is also called Swift Current, Fort St. John, Trois Rivieres, and yes, Winnipeg, Quebec, Calgary and Edmonton. If professional hockey can't last in Winnipeg and Quebec, how long will it endure in Anaheim?
Abandoning hockey's heartland is not the road to prosperity. The league's bean counters ignore that at their peril.
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