Saturday, March 16, 2013

Our State Pastime

            The Minnesota Golden Gophers Men’s hockey team has become, in our state, more than a team- it’s a religion, and it’s a way of life.  One that I wish I could be more into.  It’s not that I don’t like hockey, but I have so much on my sports fan plate already, and understanding, appreciating and rooting for hockey is so time-and-effort-consuming that I just can’t give it the attention I know it deserves.  College hockey even more so.  That’s partly a product of the country as a whole and what the national media outlets tend to devote time to.  But I understand that with many people in the state we live in, it’s what they eat, breathe, and sleep.  It starts in high school, where we have the most glorified (and rightly so) hockey tournament in the country.  It’s what basketball is to Indiana, or Brooklyn, perhaps.  Katie Baker of Grantland wrote a great piece detailing just this relationship between the hockey buffs and their team.
            The reason I get chills and want to go bake a Hotdish while drinking an ice-cold Pop is that this team is probably as much Minnesota’s team as any team in any sport is to any state or area.  It’s because almost every player on the Gophers is from our state specifically.  Taking from Baker’s story, they all seem to grow up playing on those frozen ponds dreaming of one day playing for the Gophers.  It’s the big leagues of that demographic.  Even when I was growing up watching mostly other sports, I once asked my dad about the Twins, “Are all the players on that team from our state?”  They should be, it felt like, so we could prove that we were better at that sport than the other areas.  And that’s what this program epitomizes.
            But the sport itself generally has two major hubs of talent- Minnesota and Boston.  No two other places could produce as many colleges who are all that good at hockey.  And for the most part they each take players from their respective areas.  There are good teams in places like Michigan and New York state for sure, but none have as a deep of histories as the two aforementioned.  So with all the recent sports success the Boston area has had, this is pretty much our last grasp at besting them in something.  It seems even more personal for us given all the good players the town has stolen away from our teams with the allure of cash, but for once it’s nice that one sport has come down to strictly home-grown talent.
I’m pretty sure the reason I don’t follow pro hockey that closely is the lack of a pro hockey team in my state during my formative years.  I knew a lot of kids who played, but my parents really didn’t encourage it because it was just about the most expensive sport a kid could play and they (and I) liked most other sports better anyway.  But the NHL has made some horrible mistakes with the relocation of their teams.  Let’s examine- they moved a team from Hartford, Conn, to Raleigh, NC.  Not the obscure state capital I would have picked, not to mention having to change the greatest logo of all time.  2) Moving the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix, home of no natural ice… ever.  And 3) Moving The North Stars out of the State of Hockey to the State of Football.  (Sorry, Quebec- hockey seems to have thrived in the move to Colorado, which never was a horrible place to go to begin with.) But it was a good idea to bring major league hockey back to the North Star State, if only because I could never be sure if the Moose (that minor league team) was meant to be a singular or plural noun.[i]
            And it’s really sad, when you think about it, that this state, which invented the sport, went even as long as it did without a pro team. It may indeed be semi-hypocritical of me to say that teams shouldn’t ever leave the city they start in.  It worked out pretty well for the original Baltimore Orioles franchise (now known as the New York Yankees), it seems to have worked out for the Dallas Stars (curse you, Tom Green!)[ii], and it worked out alright for the original Washington Senators.  But it seems like we’ve lost a part of our state’s sports history having lost the North Stars.  You never hear about the Stanley Cup Finals run we had around the same time the Twins were winning their second World Series, probably because we feel like it doesn’t belong to us anymore- it belongs to Dallas[iii].  But you do see people walking around in North Stars jersey-shirts (sweater-shirts?) or hats a lot around here, so it seems like it meant something.  I remember when they were holding the naming competition and such for our new NHL franchise and as a sports fan it was interesting.  But even then I didn’t really feel like I was going to get into it.  I was used to having one team to root for in the summer, one in the fall and one in the winter.  When you’ve left an area for a while, even a hockey-mad area, I think you end up losing a generation of fans, because another sport will just take its place.

[i] And I’m still unsure if I think singular or plural nouns make better team nicknames as a whole.
[ii] Same for the Lakers, too, it seems.
[iii] Put up the Senators’ 1924 World Championship banner already, Twins!