(Part One is here)
Let me begin Part Two with a little bio about myself. I am a Hispanic man in my late 20s living in South Florida. I immigrated to the United States as a baby, grew up here, was nationalized here and consider myself an American and most of all a Floridian. I love the pro sports teams from South Florida. My first love is baseball and the Miami Marlins. My family came from a baseball country so the ability for my father and I to bond over the sport was easy. I grew to like football since the Marlins had shared their home stadium with the Miami Dolphins. In 2004 as a teenager I fell in love with Dwyane Wade's playing style of basketball and followed the Miami Heat. Yet it was not until 2011 when I was away at Florida State University that I fell in love with hockey and the Florida Panthers. I attended a Cats game in 2009 and a spark grew from the overtime thriller gold medal game in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Since coming into hockey fandom, specifically that of the Florida Panthers, I found that Panthers fans were treated with a stigma I had not witnessed in the other sports. In fact I soon came to realize it was a stigma that followed fans of any of the Sunbelt NHL teams. The stigma was the notion that this legion of fans should not exist or even cheer for this team. It is very strange because usually questioning on fandom pertains to the history of the club, recent success or, for some fans, cheering for the team when living outside the team’s region. Yet northern Americans and, most specifically, Canadian hockey fans seem to judge the Sunbelt teams and fanbase on their existence based on a self-righteous and selfish ideal that hockey only belongs in the north. The reasoning is flawed.
The most ignorant of Canadians go on the notion that hockey is "their" sport and thus they should have sole ownership of it. Yet it is backwards to be so passionate about a sport and not want to share it with others. It is a belief that is not seen in baseball, basketball, football or soccer. The United States is the birthplace of baseball yet baseball fans are not unhappy that the game has spread. Major League Baseball exhibition and regular season games have been played in Japan and Mexico and will be played soon in Australia. The idea of a Mexican or Puerto Rican MLB franchise is often thrown around as a viable idea. The NFL is toying with the idea of having a franchise in London, England, an idea that would not have been thought of twenty years ago. Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian, invented basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts and spread it himself as he traveled to Kansas. The NBA’s efforts to capture the Asian and European markets has led to American basketball stars being praised and idolized just as much or even more than they are in the USA. The NHL has gone international before also with exhibition and regular season games staged in Japan, Europe and even Puerto Rico. All of these leagues realize that the forward progress of the sport and their respective leagues hinge on spreading the game beyond their safe and conservative markets. It is why the late 1980s and the 1990s was full of teams popping up in markets that had only one or no pro sports team. South Florida in particular grew from being a Miami Dolphins monopoly for twenty-two years since 1966 into housing clubs in the four major North American pro sports leagues by 1993. Markets open up and a chance to spread the game is there. Yes even Canada has experienced this push to tap into their market. The NFL’s Buffalo Bills for years played a home regular season game in Toronto as a testing ground for possible relocation and marketing of themselves to Canadians. The NBA in 1995 expanded to Canada. MLB’s first Canadian franchise was the Montreal Expos with the Toronto Blue Jays following half a decade later.
Video proof for those that need a little help grasping the concept of hockey being played in Latin America.
Now Canadians may read this and levy their other ignorant excuse. This excuse is that it does not snow or get icy in these Sunbelt locations. Here is a story of Dallas in 2014 with snow.
It can be said that the presuppositions of people can be thrown out the window by Mother Nature. Yet even without this debunking of assumptions that Sunbelt regions do not get cold it is a flawed reason for hating Sunbelt NHL teams and fans. In no other sport is the weather of the region used as a reason for some regions to be barred from enjoying a sport. Basketball is played from the asphalt of the street to the hardwood courts of gyms. Football is played in the mud of a public park to the artificial turf in a dome. Baseball’s game is played in pristine fields by men after a day of work to unkempt land by poor children in the Dominican Republic. Yes even hockey does not need the cleanest, crispest sheet of ice to be played. People can enjoy the game from the frozen lakes of Minnesota, to the asphalt of North Carolina. Families can enjoy it from their flooded frozen backyard in Manitoba, to their synthetic ice in their backyard in Florida. It is a game that is fun and exciting and if Canadians loved it so much they would share it with the world. Indeed the perception of hockey outside of Canada can be cruel as the world sees it as a bunch of thugs on skates fighting each other while a band of drunken hooligans watch and it only matters during the Winter Olympics even though nobody really cares about that version of the Olympics. It is a stereotype that I once carried about hockey personally. Sharing the game rather than deeming areas unworthy of it before people have the chance to learn it is the way to end this stigma. Heck my love for hockey led me to search out the history of the game and I stumbled upon a similar version of the game that was played by the Purepecha Indians in Mexico. Guess what. It's older than ice hockey. So Canada may not want to get that international patent filed.
Now let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Stereotyping that the uninitiated fans in the Sunbelt cannot appreciate the splendor of hockey is extremely ignorant. With the recent growing trend of players being drafted in the NHL that were born in these Sunbelt regions it would seem that the bumpkins, rednecks, immigrants and minorities of these regions did a good job in appreciating the game a generation since the Sunbelt push. It also seems we got some help from migrants and transplants that were willing to support the game in these regions. These NHL franchises have all done some form of teaching the game to these regions’ citizens and have now existed for so long that these fans are all caught up and even surpassed some in the northern markets. Fans in Carolina, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Dallas have all experienced a modern day Stanley Cup parade before NHL fans in Ottawa, Vancouver, Buffalo and Minnesota. The people alive to comprehend the Maple Leafs winning their last championship are now in their 50’s while there are players in the NHL that are soon to be drafted that were not alive the last time a Canadian NHL team won the Stanley Cup. Could it be that this irrational hatred for Sunbelt teams is a result from a damaged Canadian ego as a result of extreme nationalism?
Canadians may defend this argument by throwing attendance numbers at me pointing out that the Sunbelt teams have struggled to get people to watch. Usually they point out the Sunbelt teams that are doing terribly in the standings and thus do terribly in attendance. However they do not ever point out the successful attendance numbers of Sunbelt teams doing well on the ice. It would seem that even looking back historically that a team like the Florida Panthers does better in attendance when the team does better on the ice. A wild revelation yes but let me continue. Winners bring fans and it is the true for Sunbelt NHL teams as it is for any other pro sports team. Now Canadian fans will point to their markets stellar numbers in the wake of some of their teams doing terribly in the standings. There are many factors however that can change the perception of these numbers. Historically great NHL teams in Toronto and Montreal are always going to do great despite final results due to the size of their market and the aura of their past. It is the same for other historically great teams in other sports such as the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA, the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL, and the Boston Red Sox in MLB. Now regarding NHL franchises like Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary I will reiterate a point I made in part one of this observation as well as make another point regarding the nature of these markets. The 1990s relocation scare has left these markets scarred and in fear of losing their franchises to American markets not just in the Sunbelt but to northern American areas and even to other regions in Canada. This fear may be a reason for their hate of Sunbelt regions. This fear is also fantastic leverage for those particular teams’ ownership groups to use in getting what they want from these markets (one of them has used the threat of relocation to the United States to gain a new arena in Edmonton). Another reason that these Canadian markets do so well is due to not having much competition as far as entertainment and sports is concerned. Most if not all of the Sunbelt markets have populations greater than most in Canada and with warmer weather and more options for entertainment these teams in the American South have to work hard to establish themselves as valuable to their community. For all of the Canadian markets it would seem that they are nothing without their NHL hockey team and the owners of those markets seem to reap the benefits regardless of what happens on the ice.
Canada is a country that, on the world scale, is not heavily involved. Canadians seem to like it that way while they can hide in the shadow of their superpower neighbor, the US. Nobody bothers them and they do not bother others. They do have an international presence and ally with several nations to further their agenda but beyond this political and military realm Canada is not known for much. Hockey is one of those things they are most known for however and it is an inevitable in that nation. I have been to Canada. I have seen the Stanley Cup at the Hockey Hall of Fame. I stayed at a friend’s house and we played NHL on the Nintendo 64. The NHL as a whole is mostly comprised of Canadians with Americans and Europeans comprising the rest of the league. It is not farfetched to believe that the Canadians are afraid that the Sunbelt presence is a threat to their national identity. There are now more Sunbelt teams then there are Canadian teams even after two had relocated to Canada from Atlanta. It must feel like an affront to the Canadians that those people in the South are watching the highest level of hockey while most of them are left to just seven teams.
In fact Jim Balsillie, a Canadian business mogul, tried for years to acquire an NHL team with the sole purpose of bringing it to Canada. When his most recent bid failed this is what he wrote to his supporters:
"From the beginning, my attempt to relocate the Coyotes to Hamilton has been about Canadian hockey fans and Canadian hockey. It was a chance to realize a dream. All I wanted was a fair chance to bring a seventh NHL team to Canada, to serve the best unserved hockey fans in the world. I believe I got that chance. I respect the court’s decision, and I will not be putting forward an appeal.
Nobody can deny that we are now a big step closer to having a seventh NHL team in Canada. It doesn’t matter who owns that team. When that day comes, I will be the first in line to buy a ticket to the home opener.
I want to take this opportunity to thank my family for all their love and support. I also want to thank the more than 200,000 fans who supported the bid online and the countless others who contacted me personally to show their support. This bid always was about the game we all love."
It seems very noble and I can recognize that Balsillie is coming from a good place with this in his mind. There is however a blatant nationalistic agenda that in a way deems that it does not matter where the next Canadian NHL team or who owns the next Canadian NHL team as long as it is Canadian and not just any team but a team coming from the Sunbelt. Is it un-Canadian for someone to support a Sunbelt hockey team? Is the owner of the Dallas Stars, Tom Gaglardi, a bad Canadian for buying the Stars and not immediately shipping them out to Hamilton? Is Phil Esposito, a Canadian and a Hall of Fame former hockey player, a bad Canadian for being one of the founders of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and a big supporter of spreading hockey to areas besides Canada? The English in the United Kingdom were not devastated when star soccer player David Beckham decided to play in the MLS in an effort to grow the game in the United States and his image. China was more than happy to have Yao Ming represent them in the NBA. Canada is more than willing to boast about Steve Nash and his hall of fame career in the NBA all of which was spent in either Dallas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Why is the opposite true for Canada when it comes specifically to Sunbelt hockey teams?
Why is the NHL in these Sunbelt markets? Money. Money. Money. Despite the fact that the NHL knows it would make easy money just by placing a franchise or two more in Canada it is a short term gain that will at some point level off after a few years due to the economy and population in a market such as Quebec falling behind when compared to larger American markets in the South. The NHL and the sport of hockey will never realize its potential if it retreats and stays in the frosty north. Already soccer’s popularity is gaining on hockey’s popularity and Major League Soccer (MLS) stretches from the American south to Canada. Once more the reasoning that the game of hockey can never be financially successful in the Sunbelt is a pessimistic and negative way to think about the sport. Had soccer thought the same than the MLS would not have grown and possibly could have disbanded much like the North American Soccer League (NASL) did before. Once again it is difficult to acknowledge that such a large legion of people want a sport to not be shared and to hope it does poorly in a region other than theirs. How can you watch the Stadium Series game in Los Angeles and not be happy about everything that night stood for and how far the game has come?
This led me to believe that Canadians may be harboring a deep-seeded hatred for southern markets based on something beyond nationalism. In a way I believe the wanting of barring fans from the Sunbelt in the NHL is a subtle form of racism on the part of Canadians. The population of Canada is predominantly white much like the game of hockey. Yet much like the United States there are groups of individuals in Canada that believe in the notion of race as the sole deciding factor in superiority over other people. Also similar to the United States and humankind in general there are groups of well-meaning individuals of the majority that harbor some ignorant thoughts as a result of their upbringing and environment. What am I trying to say? I am saying that Canadians may believe, in a subconscious fashion, that NHL fans in the Sunbelt are not worthy or capable of appreciating hockey due to the racial makeup of the people of those regions. Latinos in Florida, Asians in California, African-Americans in North Carolina or even the thought of white people ignorantly categorized as rednecks and hillbillies in Nashville cannot possibly get this game due to their race. The NHL is not immune to racist struggles. This article on Arctic Ice Hockey detailing the recent race issues a few current NHL players have faced is indicative of this and even TSN, Canada's version of ESPN, drew the ire of the Great White North's worst.
Now northern American or Canadian defenders may go on to respond that these people that wish the Sunbelt teams would be gone due to race or nationalism are just an extreme group that represent the lowest of the low of Canada. Then how does one explain a major Canadian corporation posting an image deriding Florida’s NHL fanbases?
A Molson sales representative was even trying to defend the tweet to Sunbelt fans offended and even some Canadian white knights who felt this hurts hockey and Canada’s image more than helps. Yet another more prominent Canadian group is also leading the charge against Sunbelt hockey: the Canadian media. I could give you countless examples of articles written by Canadian publications deriding the NHL’s presence in the southern United States but I will just link this article that has the writer lamenting the fact that the NHL is in a more stable situation than it has seen thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and the recent television contracts with Roger’s Communication. The only reason he and the Canadians he is pandering to are disappointed in what should be considered good news to anyone who truly cares about the sport is that it means less of a chance that some Sunbelt teams move to Canada. Never mind that regions such as Quebec or Hamilton could bid for an expansion club or that the Forbes numbers the author of the article cites are estimates and do not take into account the umbrella organizations that most NHL teams fall under that make money overall thanks to non-hockey events. It is a narrative all too common coming out of the "polite" country up north. Maybe passive aggressive is a more appropriate label but I digress.
The Sunbelt hockey "experiment" is still going on even after forty-seven years since the birth of the Los Angeles Kings. The teams that emerged in the 1990s are now a generation's-worth of fans deep. Despite every team but the Flames and Thrashers in Atlanta surviving for at least sixteen years the fans of northern American and, primarily, Canada still feel that the NHL has failed. Even in the wake of becoming a billion-dollar industry and recent massive television deals the north still feels the NHL has failed. This criticism of Sunbelt hockey is always prevalent despite the success these teams have made on and off the ice for their respective regions in growing the game from developing hockey programs for youth and adults to winning the Stanley Cup. I believe Canadian fans have painted themselves as the only group of people who could appreciate and enjoy the game at its highest level and that it is a passive aggressive and even aggressive form of nationalism and racism. This attitude is rebuffed to the masses by Canadian corporations and media even though it flies in the face of what a true lover of the NHL and hockey in general would want. That want is to grow the game and let people of all areas, races, orientation and creed share in the excitement that is the NHL. I hope that someday Canada finally gets it. Some people do, maybe there is hope. Then they can truly label themselves as polite as they believe they are.
(Ed. note: Francisco is commonly known around these parts as National Mario, a superb graphic designer who conceptualized the current LBC logo several seasons ago.)