Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We sneer and grin and wait for worst

NHL franchise failure would be so great

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Suffice to say the ongoing attendance and ownership woes in the NHL are catnip to Winnipeg hockey fans wistfully longing for the league's return.

Didn't you hear? They drew 9,802 the other night in Columbus, whose namesake might have discovered America but has yet to discover Rick Nash.

In Atlanta, after a season-opening crowd of 15,596, the Thrashers hosted gatherings of 8,820 and 9,138 -- the latter the night the Lightning went out in Georgia.

Meanwhile, that embarrassing photo of all those empty seats at the Phoenix Coyotes-L.A. Kings game last week (6,706) is getting so many views on the Internet you'd think the picture was taken by Brett Favre. (OK, last Favre joke. Promise.)

How are the Islanders faring? Well, after drawing announced crowds of 13,351, 11,748 and 10,127, the hook on the team's website prior to Friday night's home game with the Montreal Canadiens was -- and we're not making this up -- 'No Habs No! Show the Canadiens that this is Islanders Country' featuring a photo of Habs faithful who had previously invaded Nassau Coliseum. Now I don't pretend to be a marketing genius, but when the goal is to try and beg hometown fans to outnumber those who live about 500 kilometres away, you've got some issues.

Gates of 11,000 are routine in so many places you'd think the Whalers and Jets, circa 1989, had reunited and taken their act on the road.

And don't get us started on ownership troubles. Word out of Dallas is that the Stars, who are for sale, are going to need their NHL welfare money up front soon to pay the bills. In St. Louis, the majority owners have been trying to unload the Blues for over a year, with no takers. Same goes for the Thrashers.

No wonder Winnipeggers want to get in the NHL. It's like the world's biggest garage sale. Geez, I'm surprised there aren't homemade signs offering up the Nashville Predators at the corner of Inkster and McPhillips.

Consider, too, that no matter how dire the numbers or ownership crises, the reality is far worse. Seriously, when you've got players sarcastically tweeting about customers dressed up as empty seats, as Coyotes Paul Bissonnette did recently -- "Did people think it was an 11 o'clock start?" -- then it's closer to High Noon for Gary Bettman and Co.

But what else did anyone expect? Lousy markets are lousy markets and the manifestation of the Great Recession in the U.S. was bound to kick the mucous membrane out of franchises that were experiencing financial distress long before subprime mortgages were invented.

No wonder there's not a peep out of Arizona about the supposed "theoretical agreement" reached between the City of Glendale and tire-kicker Matthew Hulsizer to buy the Coyotes for (gulp) $165 million.

Glendale council: "Hey, everybody, we've agreed to ante up US$25 million to help this guy buy the Coyotes! Yeah, the ice hockey team. Oh, and then we're going to subsidize the tens of millions in losses in perpetuity! Party at Ed Beasley's house!!"

OK, that wasn't very nice. Because say what you want about the Coyotes, but those 6,706 fans who showed up last week must be the Best Hockey Fans Ever. Or they thought they were going to see a Raffi concert. Either way, we tip our helmets to them all.

So what's our point? Well, it's not about a columnist from a small-market Canadian city being a sanctimonious smart ass. Because that's implied, right? After all, to suggest the NHL has unprecedented financial challenges these days -- at least, you know, since the last round of relocations (moment of silence) -- is to say Alex Ovechkin needs a dental plan.

That's one of the ironies of sitting back in Winnipeg and gleefully counting heads in Long Island, minus the Habs fans. We grin like crocodiles at stories we only hope are true about Stars owner Tom Hicks missing loan payments. We howl about All-You-Can-Eat Night at a Blues game. We mock the plight of the money-pit Coyotes with the joyous relish of a fat guy at, well, All-You-Can-Eat Night in St. Louis.

Above all, we make great fun out of that idiot Bettman and those bone-headed owners who are now being hoisted by their own money-grubbing, America-or-bust petard. What a bunch of incompetent dopes, eh?

Then we sigh, wipe the smug tears of laughter from our giddy eyes and wonder....

When will they let us in, too.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 28, 2010 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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