One night in Winnipeg with the Stars

Thanks to my day job, I have had the opportunity to travel with the Dallas Stars once a year for the last eight seasons.  We hop on their plane, bus, and stay in their hotel.  It is really unprecedented access to the inside of a professional sports team and something that opens our eyes to everything from back-to-back games to long lines in customs when you cross the Canadian border. Life is very good in the big leagues, but it isn’t easy to be at the top of your game and ready to roll 82 nights a year.

But, to make the playoffs, you better be ready on more often than not.

Well, this week, we took our annual trip. This was the shortest trip of the eight we have taken, but we had the opportunity to visit two cities that we had never been to before as the travels took us to St Paul, Minnesota and Winnipeg.

The first game was a win against the Wild, but I wanted to focus a lot of this review on our second destination, and the site of the first loss for the Stars in nearly a month in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

You see, I am a sports fan at what I think many would consider a different level of fandom. Sure, I have my favorite teams, but I love to compare stadiums and cities, fan bases and atmospheres, to see and understand why certain settings are a fortress of sound and others are quiet and indifferent like libraries.

Like so many kids who loved sports growing up, I fancied the idea of visiting as many different arenas and stadiums as possible. This likely kept me from studying and socializing, but a sports nerd has to follow his heart.

And a fair amount of that still exists inside me, so when I saw Winnipeg on the schedule this year, I wanted to do what I could to make sure we were on that trip. Thankfully, it worked out, and here is my review:

Winnipeg lost it’s Jets back in 1996. As I recall, it was an arena issue that caused the Jets franchise to seek greener pastures in Phoenix back then, along with dwindling attendance and the weakness of the Canadian dollar in a market that is the tinniest pro sports market in North America after Green Bay, Wisconsin.

But, I suppose distance makes the heart grow fonder. While there was no hockey in Winnipeg for 15 seasons, the area missed it dearly.  They built a new arena, and they then found a way to get the sport back to their northern outpost that is so remote that people don’t go there by accident.  Manitoba has 2 cities over the population of 15,000.  And since Brandon, Manitoba, only has 46,000 people, Winnipeg is all that Manitoba has, and the Jets are all that Winnipeg has on the sports scene (with all due respect to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL).

So, after building their arena and finding ownership that wanted to make it happen, they simply waited for one of the many southern NHL franchises that was dying financially and had no fan base that cared.  Enter the Atlanta Thrashers and before long, the NHL admitted failure in Atlanta for the 2nd time in 30 years and left for re-entry into Winnipeg.

The city went bonkers, and remains bonkers as every seat is sold out in minutes.  Then, they built a waiting list for season tickets that they capped at another 8,000.  The games will be sold out for years now, and they have NHL hockey back.  It is a major source of pride and it really makes you wonder what went wrong 15 years ago that a team would want to leave a market that fervent for their hockey for a place like Phoenix that still seems to care as little as ever about a sport that has never caught on.

Anyway, Wednesday night was a real treat.  The MTS Centre is smallish and properly built with the fans right on top of the ice.  The luxury suites are minimal, and the arena has an intimate feel.  It is loud.  Very, very loud.  And the fan base is dedicated to the show on the ice.  They get their early and are chanting, “Let’s Go Jets”.  They gasp and cheer at every minute detail of the game.  They are locked in and as you survey the crowd, you see that every seat is filled and nobody is walking around during the game.  The aisles are completely empty and the rows of heads are perfectly aligned up and down every section as nobody is out of their spot.

The Jets and Stars have no real rivalry – they are in different conferences and nearly every Dallas Star had never played a game in Winnipeg.  Those who did had played against the Manitoba Moose in the AHL while playing for the Texas Stars on their way to the big leagues.  And yet, Jets’ fans looked for Stars to boo for various minor infractions on the ice as they made Mike Ribeiro a target for giving the Jets’ goalie an ice shower in the 2nd period.  For the rest of the night, if he touched the puck, the entire 15,000 gave him the business.

The Jets were well rested and the Stars were not.  Therefore, the Jets looked the quicker team all night long, winning puck battles and foot races.  Richard Bachman, the Stars rookie back-up goaltender, looked a bit out of sorts himself, possibly because the arena started a “Bach-man, Back-man” cheer early in the night to make sure his cage was a bit rattled.  After he gave up a few goals that seemed uncharacteristic, it was easy to suggest that they did their job.  By the end of the 2nd period, the Stars were well behind at 5-1, and the night’s celebration was underway.

But, nobody left.  Not even with five minutes to play and the score still 5-1. The arena was still packed as the fans appeared to be celebrating something much bigger than just another win.  Sure, they were fighting for their playoff lives in the Eastern Conference, but they are just thrilled to have hockey back and a team to call their own.

The Stars scored a garbage goal and then a great skirmish broke out in the final minutes as Adam Burish threw Tanner Glass’ glove into the crowd, opening up a war involving all players on the ice in a little old time hockey.  It was quite a wonderful spectacle as both sides went at it with the full house on their feet and in full voice.

Time expired and the arena continued to sing and howl.  It was unlike pretty much every experience I have had as I now have visited 20 of the 30 NHL cities.  Yes, there are loyal fan bases in Edmonton, Buffalo, Calgary, Detroit, and many other stops along the way.  But, this one was a city that had a team, lost it, and realized when it was gone how profoundly changed their lives were.  Now, it is back and they will not under appreciate it again.

I love the fans in Winnipeg and their phenomenal impact on the game, but I also loved the stadium.  There were amenities, but they were not anything like what Dallas has at the American Airlines Center or Cowboys Stadium where the restaurants, bars, and other attractions are so plentiful that it seems people regard the game as part of the experience, but not entirely so.  The idea that everyone would be in their seat for a full Stars, Cowboys, or Mavericks game seems far-fetched at least in the regular season.  Those are social scenes for so many to see and be seen.  The idea that they should be in their seat trying to rattle the goalie seems silly.

It is just how it is.  Here, we have a city with lots of attractions and a franchise in every sport.  There, they have one team that they care about and they lost it for 15 years.  But, the 1-horse towns in San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Sacramento certainly make you wonder if there is a correlation between fewer franchises, simpler arenas, and a more locked-in fan base.  There must be a reason Green Bay is like it is, and Phoenix or Atlanta are like they are – and I don’t buy that is just the weather.

Anyway, I love Dallas-Fort Worth.  I never want to leave.  But, sometimes, when one of our stadiums has a crowd that is filled with no-shows, people looking at their phones, and many fans of the enemy that easily acquired seats, I wonder how we can change how we do things.  We likely can’t.  I suppose it is called, “The way it is”.

But, my one night in Winnipeg – a place I may never return to again – had me a bit jealous that maybe we missed the target when we built stadiums that are part-stadium, part luxury resort.

Do we really need artwork at Cowboys Stadium?  And what would it take to have an arena chanting in unison before a regular season game?

And no, moving to Manitoba is not the answer.  I just don’t know what is.