There was an excitement in the air Thursday night. Groups of people gathered, crowding the downtown streets of Winnipeg. It was like waking up from a long hibernation and basking in the first rays of sun after a cold, cold winter. Forgive me for being hyperbolic but the NHL came to Winnipeg last week. That’s right, actual NHL teams dressing (for the most part) actual NHL players. This is a sight our city has only seen a precious handful of times since the Jets left over ten years ago. And it was glorious.
OK, OK I’ll stop with the dramatics. In reality, roughly 11,000 hockey fans attended the exhibition game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Tampa Bay Lightning and, all in all, were treated to a pretty decent show. The game itself was fairly exciting; both teams battled back and forth in a tilt that saw each side lead at one point or another until overtime was needed to decide a winner. In the end the Lightning walked away victorious but even the Oilers fans, and there were many, could appreciate the pace and the excitement that the players brought to the ice. Of course, even if it wasn’t an exciting game, how upset can you be when your team loses a game that doesn’t count for anything?
Therein lies the dilemma surrounding this whole event. I seem to remember the first time the NHL decided to schedule a preseason game in Winnipeg there was quite a lot of chatter concerning the possibility of the league returning full time based on the attendance, enthusiasm and overall rabid nature displayed by fans. The game passed and there were a few news stories here and there, maybe a quote from the commissioner about how passionate our fans were, but eventually the story as a whole faded into the background. A year later the same thing happened: Winnipeggers were encouraged to show up at the exhibition game and show those schmucks at the NHL head office that we can pack an arena as good as any other city. Again, we came, we saw, we were heartbroken.
Now the NHL exhibition game has become an unofficial annual fixture in Winnipeg. The league visits our city but only once a year as if we’re old lovers bumping into each other at the deli. Each year we can change our hairdo, get a new job, maybe lose some weight and hope the NHL notices. But what are we, as a city, supposed to do when the league keeps supplying us exhibition games for teams that aren’t ours? Hockey fans can only get so excited watching teams they know in their heart of hearts are not their own. And did I mention that the game doesn’t actually count for anything? That doesn’t help either. This may sound more like a lament for a home team but think of it more like wishful thinking that the league and the city won’t make any rash decisions based on exhibition game attendance. We haven’t exactly packed the house but, like I said, it’s not our team playing. It’s not even the team Teemu plays for.
That being said, it’s still important to remember that the NHL came here and put on a pretty good show. There were a fair number of Winnipeg jerseys filling out the crowd and even a few “Go, Jets, Go” chants that broke out, but overall the majority of people in attendance were fans of hockey, not just fans of the Jets. In my lifetime I remember so many rallies, petitions and protests to bring back our old hockey team it was honestly refreshing just to focus more on the game at hand rather than the possibility of a game in the future. Last week people were genuinely excited to come to the arena, but not to dredge up memories of past glory, just for the opportunity to watch some good hockey.