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Welcome to Canada’s Detroit? Not exactly, but reputation-wise, Winnipeg’s close

I’m still hoping that the Thrashers stay in Atlanta. I don’t think it’s fair for any hockey fan to feel the pain of “losing” their team because their owners are morons.

That being said, if you’re a Red Wings fan, you’re familiar with the concept that those outside of Detroit think that the Red Wings play in front of a crowd that’s just come in from post-industrial-wasteland blighted and battered terrain, probably without their wallets, which have been pilfered ten feet from Joe Louis Arena’s doors by roving gangs of thugs, and you want to, well… Bop the people who harbor such opinions on the head and explain to them that yes, Detroit, its metropolitan area and the state are still struggling mightily, but just over five million people live in an incredibly diverse and rich Metro Area and region basically bounded by Flint, Chelsea and Monroe, and that the Wings’ Alumni Association is teeming with both one-time Wings and plenty of guys who’ve never played for the team but have chosen to settle in—gasp-Metro Detroit!

In terms of demographics, Winnipeg, Manitoba is more like Green Bay, Wisconsin—so the Ottawa Sun’s Chris Stephenson isn’t off by suggesting that the NHL’s taking a “step back” in leaving the media, technology and population-drawing mecca that is Atlanta for a comparative speck on the TV ratings map.

That being said, Ilya Bryzgalov and Alexandre Burrows’ portraits of Winnipeg aren’t quite right, either. Yes, it’s Calgary or Edmonton cold, gets as much snow as Montreal and isn’t a particularly big city, but as the Toronto Star’s Paul Hunter suggests, should an NHL team find its way to “Winterpeg,” it’s got its own charms (and parks!)

Bone-chilling winter cold. Mosquitos the size of helicopters. A nightlife lacking the sophistication of, say, Columbus, St. Paul or even Raleigh. Where do we sign up?

With the expectation that the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers will soon be moving to Winnipeg — just “a matter of time” is how that city’s mayor, Sam Katz, described the anticipated migration Friday — the inevitable question arose about how players would react to moving to a place some, at least those who have never been there, might consider a hinterland. Rather than blanch at the idea, several of the Bruins involved in the Eastern Conference final, playing out in the sunny climes of Florida, thought the move would be enthusiastically received by their brethren.

“You’ll get players who would love to play in a Canadian city. I was lucky enough to play in Calgary and the opportunity in your career to play in Canada is a very special thing,” said defenceman Andrew Ference, who grew up in Edmonton. “You’re on Hockey Night in Canada. You’re on the front page of the papers. You’re around people in your community that absolutely love the sport and there’s tremendous support for you. There are some guys that will seek that out and love it. There are (other) guys that don’t like pressure; those are usually guys that don’t play in the playoffs too much either.”

That’s the truth of the matter about a small town teeming with outdoor activities in summer and winter, rivers, parks, fantastic food, shopping (this is apparently a big deal), a bustling downtown (albeit with a near-American crime rate) and a populace that lives up to the “friendly” on their license plates. Winnipeg and southern Manitoba’s lack of size are made up for by the million-and-a-half rabid fans that cheer for their teams win or lose—and Jets fans know all about losing—but there’s also nowhere to hide.

It’s not like playing for the Red Wings, where somebody will say they ran into Hank Zetterberg at Bed, Bath and Beyond in Bloomfield Hills and that could be two hours from where a Wings fan lives. It’s Winnipeg, where you and an NHL star shop at the same supermarket and you and the same NHL’er might frequent the same bar because you’re essentially in a town and small set of suburbs where there are only 700,000 or so people, so there really is nowhere to hide.

That number yields more than enough butts in seats to support an NHL team, but it also means that if you drive around in a Hummer while wearing a full-length fur coat (cough cough Fedor Fedorov cough cough) and drinking, smoking and carousing your way around town, you’re probably not going to be able to live your reputation down.

Is Winnipeg a great place to live, cold included, and a great place to play hockey? Sure…

“The support is there. The economy is different than it was. You’ve got the building in place and they’ve got a great ownership group that knows how to run things successfully,” said defenceman Shane Hnidy, who is from Manitoba and makes his off-season home in Winnipeg. Anybody that’s played on the (AHL’s Winnipeg-based) Moose had nothing but great things to say about it. Guys love playing there. Most of the negative stuff that comes out is from people who aren’t familiar with the area.”

Bruins goaltending coach Bob Essensa, who played for the Jets from 1988 to 1994, said that time in Winnipeg was his most enjoyable in hockey because the players and the community became intertwined.

“There’s something to be said for those small-town Canadian teams that the players and the community really rally around,” he said. “They don’t have maybe as many distractions as a big American city. From that standpoint, you’re focused on hockey, you’re focused on your teammates and I think the team and the city is better off because of it.”

But that’s the deal. Winnipeg is the Green Bay of the NHL, despite its Detroit-like reputation. It’s a big town in a small market where, should NHL players find themselves within the next five to ten years, you’re bound to find somebody who’ll show you how to use your block heater, somebody who’ll remind you that seven and-a-half hours of daylight in the winter means eighteen in the summer. And yes, the mosquitoes are the size of your palm, but it’s not as if you can’t see them coming.

It’s “underrated,” and I know all about “underrated” towns, because I was born in Detroit, and while I’ve lived in Metro Detroit all my life and had a Detroit probation officer for a father, I’ve spent six months of my life in Manitoba, and I nearly moved to Winnipeg to marry a gal (went there in the winter and loved it, but I’m odd). If NHL’ers can deal with the small-town mentality, they’ll be just fine in a fantastic hockey community.

I just wish that Atlanta wasn’t losing a team in the process.

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Comments

Avatar

I couldn’t agree more. I was born and raised in Las Vegas, but I married one of those Winnipeg gal’s you mentioned and I’m currently waiting for my permanent resident visa. I never understood why so many people called Winnipeg an awful place, it has tons of character and the people are friendly. What more do you need? Sure it has it’s bad parts, but what city doesn’t? Love this article, I hope to see more articles like this, instead of complaining that they don’t have a Marriot, or a direct flight from (nhl city).

Posted by Zach from Las Vegas/Winnipeg on 05/21/11 at 01:23 AM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

”...just over five million people live in an incredibly diverse and rich Metro Area and region basically bounded by Flint, Chelsea and Monroe…”

cool smile

I’ve always wanted to visit Winnipeg.  I tend to like places that are off other peoples’ radar and you gotta love a town that loves hockey so much.  I’ll be happy if they get a team again. 

As for feeling sorry for Atlanta… 1) are there really that many die-hard hockey fans there?  and 2) have you ever been to Atlanta?  There’s really not much going on there except horrific traffic.  And it’s as hot and humid as it gets in summer.  I’d rather deal with the cold in Winnipeg than live in, or anywhere near, Atlanta.

Posted by MsRedWinger from Flori-duh on 05/21/11 at 09:34 AM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.