Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Generation of hard-core Moose fans comes of age

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You can quantify a lot of things; put numbers on a graph, slice up a pie chart, get out the tape measure or set the scales.

But how do you measure caring?

For example, there were more than 14,700 fans at the MTS Centre on Tuesday night and when Manitoba Moose marksman Jason Jaffray wired a slapshot past Hershey Bears goaltender Michal Neuvirth for the winner, the joint exploded. It was genuine and it was extremely loud.

Yet such moments have occurred before. Heck, the Moose would sell out the old Arena come playoff time way back in the late 1990s. And big, overtime goals in front of full houses have solicited similar decibel levels in the new barn, too.

"Relatively, there have been moments like that," recalled Moose chairman Mark Chipman. "But probably (Jaffray's) goal was the best one because it had the most meaning."

True, it could be said that every goal the Moose score in the 2009 Calder Cup final will be bigger than any one before in the franchise's 13-year history.

But in the last two games, which drew almost 30,000, there was a palpable sense that people actually cared. After all, did Winnipeggers really have any passion for the Moose in 1997? Sure, they showed up in droves for playoff games but you got the sense a lot of the draw was forced. As in, "Well, it's a hockey playoff game, so we'd better go, right?"

The same could be said in the early part of the century, too, when the Moose were still going through various incarnations before ending up as the Vancouver Canucks' affiliate. And why would they care? The Moose didn't have much of a history to speak of. Players came and went. The leagues changed.

However, there was a scene at Tuesday night's game -- one of many -- that probably best embodied what the Moose have become in this city. No, not those five young girls who showed up in their matching lime tank tops, although that was fine, too.

It was, rather, four teenage boys who all had the name "Pope" painted on their chests. And they were all wearing handmade mitres, the Pope's ceremonial chapeau, in honour of Moose rookie forward Matt Pope. (Either that or those lads are very into Catholicism.)

Huh? Matt Pope? A late-season call-up? Sure, the kid's scored a couple of big playoff goals. But, no offence, you'd have to be pretty passionate about the Moose to be sitting at home on Monday night with your buddies handcrafting a pope's hat for the game.

So who are those kids anyway?

"Those guys who do that stuff grew up with our team," Chipman ventured. "They haven't really known anything else."

Maybe that's the difference you can't measure.

There's no getting around the fact that visiting AHL teams are virtually unknown quantities, for the most part. But there's a growing (literally) segment of the population never exposed to the NHL's Jets.

 

Really, take away all those 20-somethings in the arena and those crowds wouldn't have been nearly as large, or loud.

And if you looked really close, they were probably the ones in raucous joy when Jaffray's winner hit the twine on Tuesday night.

"I went home and watched the highlights (on local sports TV) that night," Moose public relations director Scott Brown said. "I shook my head and said, 'Look at that crowd.' It takes a long time for a crowd to react like that. That was amazing."

After all, the Bombers weren't always the Bombers. It took decades and generations of fans to develop that franchise's relationship with the community. It's an affection that can't be contrived or formed in just a few years.

In fact, not so long ago Chipman wasn't convinced that advancing to or winning a Calder Cup would have one iota of effect on the Moose's bottom line. If the Moose season ticket base was 5,000 this year, that's exactly what it would be the next.

He's not so sure anymore. "I'm going to presume that it will (affect the team's future attendance) now," Chipman said.

Again, there's no hard evidence. It's all anecdotal. It's in the faces.

Maybe you had to be there. But there's cheering and there's caring. Those can be two separate things.

Yes, there still will be folks out there who cheer when the Moose score, but couldn't care less if they don't.

That number is dropping, probably faster now than ever. It will be lower if there's a Game 6 and lower if there's a Game 7. Only time will tell, but chances are it will be even lower still if the Moose win.

If you don't believe me, just ask the Popes.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2009 C1

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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