What kind of hockey market is Vancouver? – Weekend Watchability Index

Generally, my list of Facebook friends is different than the list of people I interact with online. It’s made up of college bros and girls I used to flirt with, the common thread being that I had enough real-life interaction with them to be generally curious about their new jobs, new cities and vacation plans.

These Facebook friends, generally scattered across British Columbia but contained within Vancouver and Kamloops, aren’t into hockey like I’m into hockey. Even in my periods of disinterest from the NHL, I still check scores and scorers. I check my Fantasy teams every night. I’m interested in which junior hockey player I’d interviewed once years ago is finally making his NHL debut. The friends I went to high school and university with are not like that. Events were made out of watching Canucks games and finals games, but there’s not enough interest in what the Philadelphias and Tampa Bays of the world are doing for me to have legitimate hockey discussions with these friends where I’ll learn something.

Enter Deadspin.

By virtue of me not knowing many hockey fans or sports fans, it’s rare that I’ll see a Deadspin piece linked up on Facebook that isn’t from a blog colleague or the one Thunder Bay-born die-hard Maple Leafs and Vikings fan who lived down the hall from me my first year in dorms. And yet, a Deadspin story made the rounds on my Facebook feed yesterday, shared by people that had no idea what Deadspin was. This was a story written by Chris Koentges, who I admit I’ve never heard of, but he seems to be a Vancouver-based features writer (who has a story written on the rise of Finnish goaltending).

The story, if you haven’t read it, is excellent. It’s well-written and explores how poorly somebody like Roberto Luongo fit into Vancouver. I do disagree with that thesis, that to market the Canucks during Luongo’s time here was to market Vancouver, and that goaltenders are defined by eras. Even Koentges, an admitted Flames fan, talked about the “indestructibility” of Miikka Kiprusoff, without mentioning that in a decade, that brief five-year period of modest Calgary success will be defined as “the Jarome Iginla era” and there’s no chance it’s anything else.

For Vancouver, the “Luongo era” could just as easily be described as “the Vigneault era”. Both came to town after the horrific 2005-06 season, where the Canucks, expected to compete for a title coming out the lockout, missed the postseason. The Canucks cleaned house and the two biggest additions were the new goaltender and the new coach. Compared to their fiery predecessors Dan Cloutier and Marc Crawford, the newcomers were relaxed and unconventional. Both are as misunderstood as they are talented. Neither knew how to brush bad press under the rug, but I’m sure they would have if they cared about their reputation in the press. Koentges made a great point about how Luongo is a rare breed of elite athlete who publicly embraces his infallibility.

The other thing I’d add: what kind of person roots for the Canucks? It’s not that the Canucks have to work hard to cultivate a market, but consider the difficulties of turning a Vancouverite into a hockey fan like you could anywhere else in Canada. Not many Vancouverites would admit it, but there is a sense of exclusion from other Canadian stereotypes. We are not good hockey players here. We are not good curlers. We don’t have to toss boiling water on our windshields on the morning to drive to work, we do not have to spend our afternoons before puck drop shovelling snow. While any city West of Sudbury is generally isolated geographically, Vancouver is also isolated meteorologically and at least in Canada, that means it’s also somewhat isolated culturally, unless you want to lump us in with all those weirdos on the islands.

Many of my friends I met at university in Kamloops are not from Vancouver. They’re from Prince George, Smithers, Terrace, Kitimat, Kelowna, Salmon Arm, Revelstoke, Fort St. John, and other small towns in the British Columbia interior. They’re hockey fans. They grew up playing the game and held onto the NHL dream for longer than my friends in Vancouver were able to. They played on backyard rinks, and took the initiative to shovel the frozen ponds just outside of Kamloops where we’d spend many long, cold winter days. They’re hockey fans, cheering for Vancouver because Vancouver happened to be the most convenient team to cheer for, not because they’re out practicing yoga on Third Beach at dawn. They’re the kind of people who will read Deadspin if Deadspin has an article up about the Canucks, but I can’t think of many of them who would know the difference between Kitsilano and Surrey.

There is a lot of negative media coverage in Vancouver. When the Canucks traded for Luongo, I can remember people asking if Vancouver is going to run yet another goaltender out of town. “Is Vancouver ready for an elite goaltender?” was asked weekly on sports talk radio between 2006 and 2013, even as the Division titles, Vezina nominations and Presidents’ Trophies piled up. Unlike the vast majority of sports teams in North America, there is no legitimate, nearby rival, of which the hatred between the two teams transcends rebuilds. Even when Calgary was good and Edmonton had no hope back in the 2008 and 2009 years, the Battle of Alberta still mattered, just as the Battle of Pennsylvania did last year. The 2012 Boston Red Sox, who won 69 games all season, still played three Sunday night primetime games against the New York Yankees on ESPN.

Ever since I’ve been paying attention, I can’t think of a rival franchise the Canucks have had that’s last more than four or five years. There was a period of time when we hated St. Louis, before moving onto Colorado. Then Todd Bertuzzi was traded, and suddenly we hated Calgary. And then the Canucks and Blackhawks had a few series against one another, and the resulting Vancouver-Chicago rivalry seems to be fading now.

The result is that the negative attention doesn’t get turned on another franchise, but rather towards the team. I’ve made the point previously on this blog that the Canucks don’t really get enough credit for being in contention year after year after year for more than a decade. They’ve missed the playoffs just twice since the league expanded to 30 teams, by a combined total of six points. They’re sure to double that this season and maybe enter a brief period of badness, but a lot of people I talk to act as if the Canucks are cursed unlike any other team, or are going to become the first team in the history of the NHL to miss the postseason.

And that’s another problem with Vancouver. Our isolation means that we look too often at ourselves, and expose every problem we have with our own city and fail to recognize our strengths. No reasonable person with a real job can watch every Eastern Conference team regularly-enough to note that the Canucks aren’t the only poor offensive team with a bad coach that mistreats its goalies.

Which is sort of why I do the Watchability Index. It’s partly to remind Canucks fans that there are other teams in this league, some are good, but most are just as bad as the Canucks, with the difference being they’ve been in this position far longer than Vancouver has.

WEEKEND WATCHABILITY INDEX

Since the Canucks are boring to watch and no longer in realistic playoff contention, I’ve compiled a list of five games which should be, generally, watchable based on the quality of the teams, potential for a high-scoring game and impact on the playoff races.

Toronto Maple Leafs @ Philadelphia Flyers – Friday @ 4:00 p.m. PST

The hook: Friday is actually going to be a great night for hockey, if you’re reading this on time, to get home and boot up the ol’ GameCentre. Philadelphia has been seemingly indestructible since the beginning of February. I expect not a lot of people are retweeting for posterity Sam Carchidi’s classic tweet “confirming” the Flyers have just become a playoff team in the wake of the Vincent Lecavalier signing, while, on the other side, Leafs fans are back to their old ways of digging up funny things written by Steve Simmons in the offseason in the wake of a six-game losing skid, all in regulation.

Every game Toronto plays has a huge impact on the Eastern playoff race right now, and given their penchant for playing close, high-scoring games, should be a favourite team of yours if you like watching fun hockey.

Pittsburgh Penguins @ Columbus Blue Jackets – Friday @ 4:00 p.m. PST

The hook: Columbus is also right there in that playoff race, playing against one of their closest geographical rivals. The current Blue Jackets are a lot more fun than #LUMBUS ever was. For one, they’re a good team whose success you can see is a little more sustainable. They are no longer dependent exclusively on Sergei Bobrovsky. Since the start of December, they’ve out-Fenwick Close’d their opponents in 32 of their 43 games, which should make them a reasonable upset pick should they make the playoffs and wind up against the Penguins, a team they can conceivably beat in a seven-game series.

Detroit Red Wings @ Toronto Maple Leafs – Saturday @ 4:00 p.m. PST

The hook: It’s free TV, and a game that could determine the final Wild Card spot in the East. Over the next couple of weeks the Red Wings’ consecutive playoff appearances streak will become a dominant storyline, and if Mike Babcock is a virtual shoo-in for the Jack Adams should he be able to complete the task for a team that’s been without a healthy Datsyuk and Zetterberg for most of the year, and has had to somehow navigate a terrible season from Jimmy Howard.

Chicago Blackhawks @ Pittsburgh Penguins – Sunday @ 4:30 p.m. PST

The hook: This game is a nationally-televised game presumably with the A-list broadcast. Grab a little microphone, record Pierre McGuire talking about how this game is a Stanley Cup preview, and then gleefully play that audio clip over and over when Pittsburgh loses in the first round to Columbus or whoever eventually beats them.

San Jose Sharks @ Colorado Avalanche – Saturday @ noon PST

The hook: Unlike the early-morning hangover game between Boston and Washington, the Capitals don’t play in this Sharks-Avs contest, meaning you’ll probably enjoy watching it to some degree. Regrettably, I have not seen a lot of Sharks contests recently, so I’m confused as to how they wound up getting out-Corsi’d 52-35 by Winnipeg in close situations Thursday night. While both teams are locked into the playoffs, the Avs are playing for home ice against Chicago in the first round, while San Jose desperately needs to stay above Anaheim to avoid a first-round matchup against Los Angeles.

And I really hope they do, since it will make my playoff pool selections that much easier.

  • RedMan

    Does any other fan group in professional sports have to defend themselves. — have to ask why? — as often as Canucks. Frankly, it’s tired. Nice write up, though. This is not a commentary on this specific article, but I was hoping Canucks Army could be a soul-searching-free space for Canucks fans.
    I suppose our general isolation doesn’t allow for that.
    Maybe one day :).

    Great piece Cam.

    • Cam’s been soul searching ever since he departed from the Twitterverse to live his life as a social media hermit. I fully expect to see him at our event ON TUESDAY THAT YOU SHOULD ALL TOTALLY COME TO completely disheveled and probably with a long beard.

  • Cam’s piece to me is a strong argument for wanting a team in Seattle (or Portland). Geographical rival, and until a few months ago, tortured sports town.

    I also think this divisional set up will help with that. Success in this divisional set up will appear more meaningful than it did in the old NW division.

  • acg5151

    This is one of the best, most thoughtful pieces I’ve read on CA.

    I think some of the insecurities you talk about being a Vancouver fan extends beyond hockey and to some degree to Canadian sports fans in general. I’ve always been a little amazed at how mindless in their devotion Americans can be — I remember going to a 67s game with a bunch of American college students who’d never been to an OHL game before and within 30 seconds they were the biggest and loudest supporters of the ‘home’ team. And that’s with someone they don’t even know — I still don’t understand the insanity with college football and basketball in the US and the way entire towns and regions pour out (especially in the South and Midwest) to see their college teams.

    Of course you’re still relying on a lot of stereotypes about Vancouverites even in your excellent take on the original article. And I think there are SOME from Vancouver or the area who can play hockey well, no? Burnaby Joe and Glenn Andersen for starters…

  • acg5151

    I’m a pretty avid Deadspin reader, and when I saw that they had posted a long-form article about Luongo and Vancouver I was very excited to read it … but I gotta be honest, I thought it was anything but excellent. Meandering, overwrought and with some pretty questionable “insight”. I mean you nailed it yourself, the very fact that the author acted like the average Canucks fan lives in a condo overlooking English Bay made most of his observations about Luongo and the Canucks fanbase pretty questionable in my mind.

    I do think you touch on an interesting point about how for some reason, the fanbase, generally, never seemed very satisfied during the extended and unprecedented run of success the Canucks had over the past 12 years. There was always so much angst and negativity. If you dropped in from outer space during the Luongo era and heard the way he was regarded by many, I think you’d be pretty shocked to learn that he was actually the greatest player at that position to ever wear a Canucks uniform.

    Perhaps the next couple of seasons will give people some fans perspective on the past decade of hockey in Vancouver, because many lacked it at the time.

    • acg5151

      Dude, why oh why do you persist on embarrassing everyone who happens to call some part of BC home? We do not all like the sad-sack Canucks and we resent the “we are all Canucks” diarrhea. We are NOT all Canucks. Some of us actually could care less about hockey. Some of use don’t want to be associated with such a pathetic lying, scheming crap product on the ice for too much money team. Some of us want the arena to be turned into a park instead of it being a money dump for the greedy Canuck owners and they hipster fans. Some of us cheer for the Habs simply because they at least take winning seriously…they have what is called “standards”. Something the Canuck hipsters have no idea of. Some of us find the idea of cheering for a franchise that’s done nothing but lose revolting. Some of us would rather burn money for warmth rather than spend it on anything Canuck related. Some of us hate the fact that the biggest sports franchise in BC I also is one of the leagues all time worst…and still is.

      You get my drift?

  • acg5151

    The real reason that Vancouver doesn’t have the same fervent fandom as say Winnipeg, Toronto ect… Is the fact that a lot of residents grew up other places. I’m in Los Angeles now and many of my friends that lived in Van moved from somewhere else and brought their allegiances with them, now in LA it’s the same deal. People are Kings fans but have a favorite team other than the Kings. Canucks have a very good fan base, but not the same identity as Flames or Oil fans because more people have lived in those areas for generations. Who moves to Calagary! Haaaa take that Flame fan!