Saturday, 14 March 2009

Hockey Rant in Canada (TM) - Hockey Loyalties

Hockey Rant in Canada (TM) - Hockey Loyalties

From a purely business perspective, team loyalty is necessary in pro sports. How else do you sell season tickets? How else do you sell out 100 consecutive games (like Pittsburgh is about to do on Sunday)? Having a few star players never hurts, but cultivating franchise loyalty is crucial to gaining a strong fan base and establishing a successful franchise.

The NHL has actually gone out of its way in recent years to cultivate fan-dom as it has expanded into formerly incomprehensible markets (FLORIDA???) and it's done a half-decent job. That said, due factors such as geographic shuffling of franchises and constant players trades, hockey loyalties are unlike any other in professional sports. Actually, that's not true. Every sports has trades. Every sport have franchises that move. But hockey loyalties are different. Every sport probably says that, but in hockey, loyalties often defy geography and logic. In Canada, at least, logic-defying hockey loyalties can be explained in part by the existence of the CHL.

Something like 30% of the NHL comes out of one junior league. The WHL actually calls itself "The Leading Supplier to the NHL" - they're not joking either, more NHLers come out of the Dub than any other junior or college league. My CHL loyalty is pretty simple: I cheer for the Vancouver Giants. Yes, my hometown of Ottawa has the 67s (who are actually really good and have been since I was a teenager), but I didn't actually start really paying attention the the CHL -not seriously- until I got to Vancouver. Ergo why I root for the Giants.

Since CHL franchises are run like NHL franchises, they sell jerseys, hats, and all the other ridiculous paraphernalia that NHL shops sell. What I always love is seeing Lucic jerseys in Vancouver - the fact that he's now a Bruin doesn't matter. And if the Bruins come to town, you can guarantee that a few of these Giants jerseys will be at GM Place to root for him.

A lot of Canadian cities don't have NHL franchises either. The bulk of the country -between Calgary and Toronto, and everywhere east of Montreal- do not have NHL franchises: that's a good 80% of the country. Only 4 provinces (of 10, plus 3 territories up north) have NHL teams. Last time I checked, the only province without a CHL franchise is Newfoundland, which has a provincial population less than most suburbs (last census was ~50,000). So with approximately 50 Canadian CHL franchises and only 6 NHL teams... well you do the math.

The second major factor in our lovely snow-convered wasteland is the fact that Canadians (as of the 2007-2008 season) make up 52% of the NHL. That's a lot of boys from small towns, and a lot of hockey moms and dads out there still in those small towns in Flyers or Avs or Stars jerseys.

As many of you know, I have a multitude of hockey loyalties. At almost every game I attend, I am forced to explain why I am cheering for whichever team it is I am supporting. Sometimes it's simple, like cheering for the Vancouver Giants. I didn't get into CHL hockey until I moved to Vancouver. That makes sense.

In the AHL, I root for the Syracuse Crunch, but that's pretty much ONLY because my favourite member of baby Team Canada plays for Syracuse.

That, and because the Crunch are the farm team for the only western conference team I have ever been given any incentive to cheer for: the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Admittedly, I have some (albeit halfhearted) interest in how the Binghamton Senators and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are doing because they are the farm teams for the Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguing, but I don't follow those teams in and of themselves. Now, if the previous sentence didn't hint at it obviously enough, let me be blunt: my NHL loyalties are a mess.

Mer’s NHL Loyalty Rankings
(subject to change at every trade deadline/the beginning of the free agency period/whenever I feel like it)

1. Ottawa Senators - I was born in the Ottawa Civic Hospital. I lived in the city until I was 20 years old. I definitely remember the grueling period of time (ie. the 1990s) when the Ottawa Senators were dead last in the NHL standings four out of five years in a row, and the even more gut wrenching period (from 2000 to 2004) when Ottawa consistently kicked Toronto's ass in the regular season games only to be dominated by Toronto in the post season (in the first round, 3 of 5 years, even when we were the higher seed - barf). Can't beat the home-team loyalty... except when you can. Like today, when the Sens have no hope for a playoff spot and they're facing the Pens, who do. [late edit: Except that I found myself inexplicably incapable of cheering against Dany Heatley...]

2. Pittsburgh Penguins - I've been rooting for them since I was five. Old loyalties die hard. Real hard.

I always seem to have to explain this one. It's very simple though. When I was a little girl in oh, say, 1988, my family went over to my grandparents house every Saturday night after dinner. While the old people talked, my little sister and I (and sometimes our cousin) watched TV in the little TV room at the end of the hall and fought over the remote. Now, this is Saturday night programing. In Canada. Which is notoriously bad since broadcasters simply assume that 80% of people are going to be watching CBC.

On nights when we didn't watch The Lawrence Welk Show (don't even ask, I was FIVE YEARS OLD), we watched HNIC. Since Ottawa didn't have a team until 1992, the city was subjected to a lot of Habs, Leafs and Penguins and Oilers or Kings games since everyone cheered for one of the first two teams, and loved/hated Gretzky and Lemieux. Either way, I remember watching Gretzky and thinking 'Okay, so what, he can score...' and then seeing Mario Lemieux and my little five year old jaw just dropping. Sold. Ergo, why I cheer for Pittsburgh.

Unless I move to Pittsburgh at some point, I will never not be required to explain this, because whenever I go to games and wear my Pens jersey (a 2008 Cup playoffs Sykora jersey at that), people always assume that I am from the Burgh. I don't mind this in the least, I just wish I didn't have to justify my loyalty at every single game...

3. Columbus Blue Jackets - This is completely artificial. I've never been to Ohio. I haven't even flown through an airport there ever. Mostly, I wanted a western conference team to root for because I live in the Western Conference and they show so few eastern conference games here and I hate watching games if I'm not rooting for someone.

So, after the (somewhat epic) gold medal game at the 2008 WJC, I realized that Steve Mason, my favourite Baby Team Canada goalie EVER, had been drafted to Columbus (69th OA in 2006). About two minutes of googling later, I discovered that Stefan Legein, who is hands-down, my favourite [this is a status in Mer-land, previously only held by a couple boyfriends and a handful of best friends], had been drafted to Columbus as well (37th OA in 2007).

Then, last June Nikita Filatov, in all his skinny Russian awesomeness, was drafted to Columbus (6th OA), and I basically decided to develop a completely artificial loyalty to the team, and started rooting for Columbus last fall. Then Pascal Laclaire was injured and they called Mason up to play and Columbus started winning. BAHAHAHAH! Love it. This is probably the only loyalty that I can't really argue with 'band-wagoner' claims. I mean I could, but I'm just lazy, so I won't. When I still love them in a few years and Legein makes the jump, I'll invest in a jersey.

4. Atlanta Thrashers - One reason: Army. Once he re-signs with the Pens, the Thrashers will drop back down into the don't-really-care middle melting pot.

5. Montreal Canadiens - I grew up 2 hours from Montreal. It's them or the Leafs.

6. Calgary Flames - It's sort of a requirement to cheer for Canadian teams. Plus, even though I don't really like Calgary much, I like the Flames. Might be because they were my biggest link to Canada when I was in Scotland and the Stanley Cup playoffs were on at 1 a.m.

7. Dallas Stars - They just have class. Plus any team that can take the Wings into quadruple overtime in the Conference final is just freaking incredible. Oh, and that 1999 Stanley Cup was nice (even if one of the main reasons I think so is because the Stars beat the Sabres who beat Ottawa in the first rounds that year). Plus, they used to be the Minnesota North Stars.

8. Chicago Blackhawks - I can't get away from the Original Six teams. I either love them or loathe them. Even split: Love Montreal, Chicago and Detroit; Loathe Toronto, Boston and, okay... don't Loathe the Rangers right now... but that's only because of Marc Staal.

9. Detroit Red Wings - I hated them during the Cup last year, and I can't help loathing the fact that they kept my Pens from the Cup but there's no way I can legitimately claim that they didn't deserve that Cup. They are a franchise that every team could learn a few lessons from. They draft super well, and they scout in Europe to find untapped talent, and then they develop the hell out of their players. Seriously, the reason they win is because they are ALWAYS in it for the long haul. They have a wicked system.

10. Anaheim Ducks - Mostly because of Ryan Whitney. Also because they were named after a Disney movie. The hilarity is not beyond me. When Whitters gets traded away, they will drop down to about 23rd on the grounds that they beat my Sens for the 2007 Cup. Still holding that grudge, thanks.

11. New York Rangers
- Again with the Original Six... Mostly though, Marc Staal. Only marginally outweighs having Wade Redden and Sean Avery on their roster. Although I am trying to hold out judgment on the latter, but can't even be bothered to hide how happy I am that the former is no longer dragging Ottawa down (now, everyone else in Ottawa can do that themselves... ugh).

12. Vancouver Canucks - Okay, don't really like the Nucks, but I live in Vancouver and my life is easier when everyone in this city doesn't hate me because their team sucks and mine doesn't. This season has been better because Ottawa sucks, so guys mostly just laugh at me and I can pull the oh-silly-me-cheering-for-my-crappy-home-team thing which, hilariously enough, usually results in me getting hit on. Which is significantly less irritating than you'd think.

The middle ranks are kind of constantly in flux. These rankings are based on who I'll cheer for above other teams, and can be influenced primarily by division ranking, conference rankings, and playoff chances of the teams I care more about. Also, on rare occasions because I like a specific player.

13. Edmonton Oilers - Again. Canadian.

14. Minnesota Wild - No clue. Just like them. And because Minnesota should never have lost the North Stars.

15. Phoenix Coyotes - Mostly because Kyle Turris is from Burnaby (where I live). And because Baby Staal was drafted to them in 2008. And because they used to be the Jets. I hope they re-become the Jets.

16. Colorado Avalanche - They used to be the Nordiques. I still have issues with this.

17. Carolina Hurricanes - Again. A Staal. Big Staal. So far the only one with a Cup.

18. San Jose Sharks - Bite me.

19. St. Louis Blues -Mostly I just pity them, and will cheer for them over team I care less about because they're neutral to me.

20. Nashville Predators - I don't get it; I just don't get it. Nashville has a team and Quebec City doesn't?

21. New York Islanders - Atlantic Division rivals to my Pens. Soon they will have Tavares; yet another reason to loathe them.

22. Tampa Bay Lightning - I can't cheer for a team from a city that has never seen snow.

23. Florida Panthers - See above.

The bottom seven are active dislikes as opposed to simply indifference and had to be rated from bottom up so that I could be sure of accuracy. I will not cheer willingly for any of these teams, except under the most dire circumstances. It sucks that a couple of them are actually good teams too because it means that I am sometimes forced to play the "which do I hate least game" during playoffs.

24. New Jersey Devils - Atlantic Division Rivals to my Pens. They have Martin Brodeur and Zach Parise, so actually a threat. They can go to hell.

25. Buffalo Sabres - Northeast Division Rival to my Sens. I take pleasure in them sucking (when they do).

26. Boston Bruins - Lost in Ruins. Northeast division. They can kiss my ass. Except for Brad Marchand. He rocks and I hope he gets traded before he gets called up from Providence, or else this is going to be the most conflicted NHL relationship I have...

27. Washington Capitals - This isn't because of Ovie or Semin; it's more to do with the Ottawa-USA capital cities thing. I'm a polisci dork. Sue me. Except I LOVELOVELOVE Karl Alzner. So when he signs a decent one-way contract and make their permanent roster, this may change.

28. Los Angeles Kings - I have a feeling this goes back to not really liking them the Gretzky-Kings era. I just don't like them, and I never really have.

29. Philadelphia Flyers - As a Pens fan, this sort of goes without saying. It's also because I find Cryers fans insufferable.

30. Toronto Maple Leafs - This will never change. Not only are they Original Six era rivals of the Habs (which is actually more of a English Canada versus French Canada rivalry), and inter-provincial rivals of my Sens, the Leafs are division rivals to the both those teams, and conference rivals with them and with the Pens. I'll root for pretty much ANYONE over Toronto.

This means that, theoretically, if an Eastern Conference Championship comes down to Philly and Toronto, I would have to cheer for Philly. [Okay, realistically, I'd probably just be cheering against the Leafs more than I was cheering against the Flyers and then I'd spend the Cup final losing my voice cheering for which ever team took the Western Conference title.]

It's not that I don't like Toronto players - some of them are fine. It's more that I can't stand their fans or their management or the fact that the fans don't demand more of their team, and yet still seem to think that they're the best team ever which they aren't (even historically or statistically).

(because there are exceptions to every rule)

1. Dany Heatley. No matter what team he plays for, I will cheer for it.

2. Ditto Colby Armstrong, Steve Mason, Stefan Legein, Karl Alzner and Brad Marchand.
Even if (God forbid) one of them end up playing for the Leafs. You can hold me to that. Even if I want to cry/vomit/scratch my eyes out/otherwise harm myself, I will cheer for these boys.

Sidney Crosby is a maybe on this list. I'm not sure it will ever be tested since the likelihood of him being traded from Pittsburgh is about on par with the likelihood of my being struck by lightning.

Seriously. And I can make that joke because I know four people who have been struck by lighting. Statistically, the chances are close.

3. Playoffs. The last 20 games of the regular season are subject to strategic playoff-
shot rooting-ness. Like today [March 14th, 2009], as the Pens and Sens face off. Because the Sens are so craptastically far out of the playoffs, and the Pens are just hanging on to 6th in the East, I will be cheering for the Pens. And Dany Heatley. This is not unlike last weekend when I was cheering for the Baby Pens and for Stefan Legein. I want the Pens to win, but I want Dany/Stefan to play a great game and get some points. It makes sense in my brain...

Total off-side: this just made me cry laughing...

I post, he scores...


KD said...

I'm seriously glad you explained your hockey allegiances. I was so going ask you to explain!

That picture of Army trying to kiss Sid breaks my heart. Dear Ray Shero, please bring our Colby back!

ali said...

Man -- seeing that picture of Colby and Sid makes me miss him even more...

Dearest Ray Shero --

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE bring Colby Armstrong back to Pittsburgh... Please??

I'm really hoping that the Pens can win a game in regulation today... wouldn't that be fantastic?? Haha... GO PENS!

mer said...

Ky, I'm not even sure that's in correct order. The middle it totally jumbled because mostly I just don't CARE about those teams and so I only love or hate them in reference to the teams I actually like/dislike.

Susan said...

I agree with KD and Ali--bring back Colby!
I can't agree with the Dallas Stars, just because I am from Houston and I always cheer against Dallas teams. Don't even get me started on "America's Team" the Cowboys!
@Ali- I'm with you, a win in regulation would be great!

lauren said...

You stopped in the middle of your sentence about Detroit. You should go finish it- I'm always interested to hear what people have to say about my team. :-)

Although I'm sure you weren't quite as pleased with the outcome of today's game as I was...

mer said...

@ deets - This post was half-done when I posted it and I've probably updated it 20 times since the first version. I just kept getting distracted by games and such, but I wanted to post it.

The sentence about Detroit probably won't surprised you too much.

Today Columbus just sucked. It was bound to happen.

Safoora said...

I'm kinda disappointed the Devils are so low on your list, especially compared to the Rags, yecch.
I understand where the hate comes from, cause they're just so consistently good. ;)

lauren said...

@mer- I didn't see the game, but I was very surprised when I saw the score. I didn't expect Osgood to get the shutout, or for Mason to let in more than two goals. I'm glad I didn't put money on the game. I still wouldn't want to play them in the first round of the playoffs.

Stephanie B said...

I totally agree - I have a hard time cheering for teams where fans wear shorts to the game in January!
I also think it's weird that guys play hockey that have never actually played on natural, outdoor ice!