Jeff Phillips: The Rebranding of a Hockey Team

(Photo Credit: hhof.com)
(Photo Credit: hhof.com)

In 1991 the word “North” was dropped the Minnesota North Stars, a clear omen the team was about to head south. The team’s owner, Norman Green, had explored moving the team to Anaheim. Ultimately he lost the spot to a team invented on the screen; the Mighty Ducks were coming to life. In 1993, Norman Green moved his Stars down to Dallas where they’ve remained as that city’s NHL team. With Minnesota seen as a land of hockey enthusiasts, hockey such a way of life, one must wonder, how did they lose their major league hockey team? Cited reasons for the move include low ticket sales and real estate issues with the arena’s location in the suburbs. Could it be these hockey families were mostly focused on attending their children’s local pee wee games that a big team didn’t really have its place? Or does that not matter – will hockey die-hards always make time for their team?

The sense of Minnesota “nice” was disrupted, Norman Green lost a lot of friends. But the void was later filled in the year 2000 when the upstart Timberwolves started as the latest expansion team.

Hockey’s basic action may have evolved from games played 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt with a curved stick and ball. The people of Inner Mongolia have been playing beikou, a precursor to modern field hockey for thousands of years. Canadians adapted this style of game play in the 1800s to its icy conditions.

Now sport may have become less about celebrating and engaging with current environment as it is about setting up an escape from existing conditions. In the case of hockey, you have your air conditioned arenas that refresh one from the desert heat. Many of NHL’s teams are now based in places of warm climate. There’s the San Jose Sharks, LA Kings, Arizona Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning. These teams and the Dallas Stars make up 9 of the 30 NHL teams, just shy of a third. Warm climate cities stake claim to more NHL franchises than do Canadian cities, which amount to 7.

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. Maybe it boils down to economics, and the big draw of cooling off at an ice arena make locating an NHL team in such warm places is at the end of the day a better business decision. But still, it resonates with me as a strange evolution of the culture of this sport. It no longer feels like a winter sport. Indeed it isn’t a winter sport. The season begins in early October and the Stanley Cup Finals go into June.

One of the hockey games I feel most compelled to watch is the Winter Classic, when the sport is taken outside, returned to its natural habitat. As a sport, I actually really like hockey the more I think about it. It is constant motion; a slick, swirling dance, punctuated by beats when a sudden shot goes for the goal, stirring bursts of anticipation.

It was once my favorite sport. I was quite obsessed with it when I was between 7 and 10 years old. Part of me wanted to be a baseball player when I grew up. But part of me also really wanted to be a hockey player. I was gearing up to play hockey. I was told in order to play hockey I had to be a damn good ice skater, so I took serious ice skating lessons. I also played street hockey everyday with my brother and his neighborhood friends. I played in a floor hockey league. We went to Pittsburgh Penguins games. I was ready to go for it.

But right when I was getting to the age where my parents felt comfortable enough with my skating to let me enter into an ice hockey league, we moved to Maine. And even though Maine may be seen as having a more hockey friendly climate than Pittsburgh, none of my friends in my new town were interested in hockey. Maine didn’t even have a hockey team in the NHL. Maine just had a minor league team. That blew my mind. As I settled in to my new town, I started to lose interest in hockey and decided to play basketball as my winter sport through the remainder of my elementary school years. My parents were probably relieved. They wouldn’t have to get up extra early to take me to 5am hockey practices. And they probably saved a lot of money on all of the equipment I would keep outgrowing year to year.

I still had a few fond hockey memories in Maine however. My dad worked for JC Penney, a proud sponsor of the University of Maine Black Bears hockey team, so we had access to their box seats from time to time.

But fondest of all is that of clearing the snow off of a frozen stream, in a field behind our house, where my brother and I, and a neighbor friend would skate and pass the puck. For a brief time I put my years of training, the combination of ice skating lessons and intense street hockey, into use to get a real feel of the sport.

We only played on the ice out there a few times. The conditions weren’t always right. Sometimes the texture of the ice would be too amalgamated with crusted snow for ice skating to be feasible. I sometimes look back on my childhood and think, shit, I should have played more ice hockey. I had such a spark for it. I don’t know where that spark went, but sometimes, out of the blue, it flickers for a quick moment. Then it’s gone.

If hockey devolved back into a purely winter sport, was played outside in places that actually had winter, and could only last the duration of winter, I would be so into it. You wouldn’t be able to settle me down. The re-introduction of the elements to the game, the snowstorms, the below freezing temperatures, would bring an intensity I would savor.

But that wouldn’t be good for the hockey business. Scheduling would become unpredictable. Seasons would be shortened; less games in which to pack the stadium and rack up the ticket sales. The sensitive sissies we’ve become wouldn’t brave the fierce winds blowing snow squalls into our faces. For better or worse, the shelter of the arenas and sports bars maintain the growth of the game’s audience. It keeps it democratic. Regardless of climate and time of the year, anyone can enjoy a hockey game. So long as someone can fund the enormous energy costs to keep the ice solid, no one will be deprived.

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