Sunday, June 26, 2011

And My Adopted NHL Team Is . . .

[wait for it]

[wait for it]

now click the "More..." button for the reveal . . .
. . . the New Winnipeg Jets.

This had to happen, for a number of reasons. To this point, I never felt any compulsion to sign on as a fan of any particular hockey team. Obviously, there is no Cleveland-based team at hockey's top level. It might be said as well, at least arguably, that there is no Cleveland-based team at the top level of any sport, but hockey is distinctive in the respect that there is not actually a team in the NHL that plays its home games in Cleveland.

And so, lacking any family rooting tradition growing up, I wrote off professional hockey. I can't claim any memories of my father listening to hockey games on the radio in the garage, or in the car as we sat in the shopping mall parking lot waiting for my mother to get her fill of J.G. Hook, Evan Picone and other department-store designers. But I feel now a compelling need to pick a hockey team — and pick one fast — because over the last couple weeks I caught myself, once or twice, pulling for the Boston Bruins. And this gravely concerned me.

I've lived in Boston for some thirteen years now, and I wear my disdain — no, let's run with it: my abhorrence — of all Boston sports teams as something of a badge of honor. The '99 Indians playoff losses at Fenway (which I attended) got me started, Manny Ramirez's November 2000 departure overshadowed in my mind the constitutional crisis brought on by the deadlocked Presidential elections, and as much as I supported the Sox in their 2004 bid for the World Series championship, the unspeakable events of November 2007 left me about as embittered and resentful as any Bay State resident can be toward his neighbors. The Celtics recently thwarted the Cavs, the Patriots are the Patriots (and yet somehow the least offensive to me of the Hub's three big-time, non Versus-channel sports franchises), and I've heard enough from Boston fans — on sports talk radio, in Fenway, Gillette, and the Gahden — to want them to know no fan experience other than those associated with defeat, degradation, and demoralization. And the worst thing about it is, of course, that these days the Boston teams do nothing but win championships.

All that said, I have to say I got caught up in the Bs' Stanley Cup run. It helped that the Canucks played like a bunch of thugs, but even so, there remains the fact that the 2010-2011 Bruins were an exceedingly likable team.

I don't like feeling this way. I don't like it at all. And I think I've been vulnerable to suggestion here, and to the undue influence of my the local subbacultcha as well, precisely because as far as hockey goes, I have no overriding loyalty to another team.

Um, let's fix this now. And to do that, let's start with first principles: the default rule in sports fandom is to pick the team that sits geographically closest to your hometown. That won't happen here. The very suggestion that I might support a team from Pittsburgh, wearing black and yellow, sets my stomach abroil and my guts churning. Next closest is Detroit, but there are lines I do not cross, and the Ohio-Michigan border is one of them. Consider, too, that both teams have been historically, as well as recently, successful. Selecting either of them doesn't feel right to a Cleveland fan. It seems too cheap. Too easy. The Blue Jackets might be an option, but to tell the truth, I flat forgot about them until I went back to proofread this paragraph. That's not a good sign.

I suppose the fallback rule, when strict application of the Hometown Rule would sicken you, is to adopt the team that resides in the town you live in now. And that brings us back to D'oh! The whole point of this project is to resist the siren song of the Boston Bruins. No, I will not be governed by rules here. I've had the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers inflicted upon me. Over this I had no control. In this single instance, I arrogate to myself the right to choose a sports team. And there's nothing for this Cleveland fan not to like about the New Winnipeg Jets.

First, you've got to love a hockey team that moves to Canada from Atlanta. This is a sign of the natural order of things reasserting itself.

Second, some time ago Winnipeg lost its first set of Jets. Now a new team arrives in town, and resisting the impulse to "start afresh" with a new team name and jazzy branding — like Washington did with its "Nationals": seriously, why not just name your team the Washington Adjectives? — the city of Winnipeg goes right back to its Jets of old. Where have we seen this scenario played out before? Let this be a sign unto you, fellow Clevelanders.

Third, what I do know about hockey derives almost entirely from the three years I spent in college playing EA Sports' NHL Hockey series on the Sega Genesis. The 1993 NHLPA version of the game was to my mind the strongest, and the most bitterly contested in the dorms. For reasons I don't really remember, the team I played with — and mastered — was the Winnipeg Jets. Yeah, I flirted with Lemieux's Penguins, but it made me feel dirty (see above). I played with Washington ("Shingtonwa," we called them) and the Rangers, too. I saw my share of Rangers games when I lived in New York, and if I can be fairly said to have an All-Time Favorite Actual Hockey Player, it's Mark Messier.

But more important to me and my daily life as a college student was my All-Time Favorite Sega Hockey Player, who wasn't Messier (although he was a beast). My ATFSHP was Old #6, defenseman for the Winnipeg Jets, PHILIP FRANCIS HOUSLEY. Phil Housley was a frickin' awesome Sega hockey player, and I daresay he and I had a kind of chemistry that made him an even better player, even more unstoppable in defense and in the attacking zone, when my two thumbs were on the controller. I can't say for sure this was true, but there was just something there. And I gather from the Internets that Housley also existed and flourished in real life. Go figure.

Fourth, I'm conditioned to root for the underdog. Now gentle citizens of Winnipeg, please forgive me if, lacking anything close to full knowledge of your city's resources and the team roster you've inherited from the erstwhile Atlanta Thrashers, I should peg your new hockey franchise as a small-market underdog. You are located in frigid, sparsely populated Manitoba, after all. You're north of North Dakota. And that means something to me.

Fifth, and finally, I have a good friend from Winnipeg. He's told me what the Jets meant to his hometown and what it means to have them back. And he lives in Boston, so we'll have one another's back when our newly beloved team skates into the Garden next year.

Yes, this just feels right.