May 292009

Detroit, Michigan is NOT Hockeytown!! I’m so tired of this self-appointed title. Although its sports fans support the Red Wings well and the franchise is currently the gold standard for NHL teams, it isn’t Hockeytown.

That title is and likely always will belong in Montreal. Plan and simple – 23 Stanley Cup titles for the Canadiens to go along with an outrageously passionate fan base. Detroit has 11 Stanley Cup titles. I worked in Detroit for close to a year and let me tell you that the fanbase there is not nearly as rabid as anything I’ve read about Montreal’s.

Detroit is possibly the most well-rounded sports city in the North America. It has strong pro franchises in basketball, baseball and of course, hockey. It pulls weight in college sports with nearby Michigan State basketball and UMich football. So I think it’s understandable that its denizens get pulled in multiple directions at once. This blessing is simple not conducive to building the same over-the-top passion as Montreal or even Toronto.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings (and a couple other teams) have passed the Canadiens in terms of performance but that doesn’t mean that those cities can match Montreal’s fervor or passion for this one sport. Montreal is Hockeytown.

May 282009

The question of loyalty to a hometown and to its sports teams is one that often comes up in sporting discussions. Some folks shed their loyalties to their hometown and its teams and adopt new teams as they move around the country. Others steadfastly cling to their sporting roots, while possibly picking up a “second” team. In some cases, this choice comes down to a fundamental question of identity.

In choosing to root for the Carolina Hurricanes over his hometown Pittsburgh Penguins, Bill Cowher created a maelstrom. Pittsburghers are, to put it lightly, livid. (As an aside, let’s dispense with any idiotic talk about his right to support whom he wants or that he owes Pittsburgh nothing. DUH!)

So does Cowher see himself, in any part, as a Pittsburgher or a solely a Carolinian? If the former, then he shouldn’t be surprised by the consternation created by his decision. If the latter, then so be it. He’s not one of “ours”.

It is generally believed that many ex-pat Pittsburghers take their sporting loyalties with them when they leave western Pennsylvania. The reason that Steelers fans show up in great numbers at road games is not because we travel well (though we do), it’s because ex-Pittsburghers already live there. And we’ve also converted anyone we can. So when Cowher chose to support the Hurricanes instead of the Penguins, he, in essence, chose Carolina over Pittsburgh as his identity. That one of our own would readily do so is reponsible for the hurt and disappointment that many of us feel.

I don’t particularly care to explain away Cowher’s decision based on his Raleigh business contacts or the possibility of coaching the Carolina Panthers one day. If he still saw himself as a Pittsburgher, he could have begged off taking part in such a public display as he gave during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.


The bottomline is that Cowher isn’t a Pittsburgher anymore, if he ever was. And yes I feel justified in making that statement based on his turncoat sporting allegiance. Perhaps his experiences at NC State and the pressure cooker of coaching the Steelers rendered him less able to embrace this part of his (former) heritage. Sure he had the accent and the roots but in some ways, he always seemed more of a hired hand than someone who embraces his city, like Mario Lemieux or Franco Harris have done.

Of course, I don’t wish Cowher any ill will. Many Steelers fans aren’t from Pittsburgh and so they are under no obligation to root for our other teams. They’re still part of the Steelers Nation. He was a fantastic coach for many, many years and I think Mike Tomlin winning a Superbowl in his second year has blinded some Steelers fans to the difficulty of winning it all. Cowher is welcome to turncoat again and root for the Penguins. But he won’t be doing so as a Pittsburgher.

May 082009

Jim Balsillie, the co-CEO of RIM, has reportedly made a US$212 million offer to buy the financially struggling Phoenix Coyotes, provided he can move the team to southern Ontario. This isn’t the first time Balsile has surfaced. He was previously thwarted in his attempts to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and then the Nashville Predators, either of whom he would have moved.

The NHL is going to fight this move, at least officially, on procedural grounds. The league contends that it is running the team and has the right to determine the location of its teams. At least on that ground, I tend to agree with the NHL. It should have the right to locate its teams, so as to take advantage of geography and keep its operations strong.

However, I take grave issue with Gary Bettman’s misplaced attempts to grow the game in non-traditional areas, specifically in the US south and southwest. It’s one thing to have a team in Dallas, where the Stars have been successful and have slowly built a fanbase. But teams in Nashville, Phoenix and Florida have had very mixed success and have done almost nothing to ingratiate themselves into the local sporting cultures.

Joe Choker

Let’s face it – hockey is mostly a northern, cold-weather sport. Unlike football, it can’t be played in warm weather so growth potential in southern cities will always be limited. It’s pretty well-suited to its northern cities – Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Boston, Buffalo, NYR, NYI, NJ, Pittsburgh, Philly, Washington, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Columbus, Minnesota. In addition, I think Colorado is well-served having a team.

Consolidate LA and Anaheim into one team because a region that tends to be as blase about sports as southern California shouldn’t have two teams. Keep San Jose for representation in northern California. Carolina has shown they can get rabid about hockey and Dallas is a successful franchise with room for continued growth.

I say abandon the southeast to college sports and Nascar for the time being. Eliminate or move the teams in Atlanta, Phoenix, Nashville, Florida/Miami and Tampa Bay. Winnipeg and southern Ontario should get two of the cast-offs. Winnipeg isn’t a huge city but with a proper arena, hockey will flourish there. If Green Bay can support an NFL team, so can Winnipeg.

Focus on continuing to strengthen the game in non-traditional areas such as Carolina, Dallas, LA/Anaheim and San Jose. (I’m not particularly enamored of having teams in sunny California but these are still good population centers for supporting the game and have experienced success in the past).

This plan leaves the NHL with 26 teams overall. Probably still two too many but with room for growth. Build a strong footprint not just a large one.

Apr 282009

So the Anaheim Ducks knocked the top-seeded San Jose Sharks out of the Stanley Cup playoffs last night. And the walls came tumbling down! As if. This can’t be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about the NHL.

It doesn’t really matter that the Sharks won the President’s Trophy. It doesn’t matter that they were playing a #8 seed. What matters is that these are Joe Thornton’s San Jose Sharks, the biggest chokers in recent memory. This is a franchise that hasn’t advanced past the second round since 2004, despite being one of the NHL’s best in the regular season in recent years.

Leave it to Joe Thornton to make a Flyers’ sized mistake by fighting Ryan Getzlaf at the start of Game 7. Just perfect, Joseph. Give the underrated Ducks a psychological boost.

Joe Choker

I’m not trying to take anything away from the Ducks who persevered and ultimately triumphed. They deserved everything for which they fought. Perhaps the Sharks’ fate would have been different had they not drawn a team only two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup. But I doubt it.

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