Sunday, January 6, 2013
Hockey Is Back, And Maybe We Should Care Or Maybe Not
Addendum after posting: The Org Wife points out that in this photo, the umpire looks a lot like Joe Paterno. I don't know if it's him, but if so, my inclusion of him was unintentional. I just liked the shot of Gretzky playing baseball.
I used to be an enormous hockey fan. Or to be more accurate, I was at least an enormous fan of my favourite NHL and major junior teams. But nearly a year ago, I posted a piece about how getting older seemed to have made me a bigger fan of baseball than I was of other sports like hockey. As an Edmonton Oilers fan, I had a rejuvenation of interest in the sport in the wake of their amazing 2006 playoff run, but since then, the game and I grew apart somewhat (I blame Ty Conklin). The space between us got even wider as the NHL lockout killed off the better part of the 2012-13 season.
Unless you've been living in your tool shed with no television or internet access, you'll know the heretofore-intractable labour dispute between the NHL and its Players' Association came to an end this weekend. It was the first news that greeted me when I woke up this morning, and even after wall-to-wall media coverage since, my reaction hasn't changed a great deal from when I heard it: stoic indifference. Everyone sort of knew a resolution was coming soon. The fact it came Saturday night/Sunday morning didn't put an exclamation point on the proceedings. Not much really changed for me, although I realize I'm probably in the minority of Canadian sports fans in that regard.
Now, you might be asking: why is he mentioning all this on what is ostensibly a baseball blog about the Toronto Blue Jays? Well, it's not like nothing has changed. For the first time in I don't know how long -- 20 years, I guess? -- the Toronto Blue Jays were the most compelling story in the Canadian sports scene in the months of October, November and December. Great things were happening with my favourite baseball team, and with the hockey media milling around the lobbies of New York hotels writing stories about make-whole provisions and disclaimers of interest, people were noticing the Jays. It was fun to feel special for a while.
The state of play today, in terms of media exposure and fan interest for the Jays, is different than it was yesterday now that the lockout has been resolved (and to a lesser extent, with the NFL playoffs underway). Even with the game-changing moves the team has made this off-season, they face stiff competition for eyes, ears and dollars from a finite pool. Even if you believe the odd rumblings from fans saying they won't come back -- and no doubt, the NHL has some relationship-mending to do with its fans -- I firmly believe Canadian support isn't going to see a substantial downturn. Hockey will always be king of the Canadian castle in the competition for sports fans here.
I don't mean to be a Negative Nancy here. To the extent we can measure these things or have access to data on them at all, the Jays are going in the right direction in terms of fan interest, ticket sales, TV ratings and revenue. Anecdotally, I can go back to my experience when the team barnstormed through Ottawa last winter and know that interest and support for the team, and for baseball in general, is alive and well here. Today, 12 months later, you can look up the Twitter timeline of our old friend The Ack in Winnipeg to see that the story is playing out similarly on the frozen prairies this weekend -- big lineups, lots of young and old fans.
The people heading to shopping malls to meet Jose Bautista and other Jays aren't all just looky-loos, and they're not all hardcore fans either. Regardless of their dedication level, the trick now is to keep them and add more in the face of stiffened competition -- and with the off-season they've had, this team is going in the right direction to do that too.
Squibbers Up The Line
The Broadcast Booth: It won't quite be the same listening to a game on the radio without Alan Ashby in the booth along with Jerry Howarth. I'm a massive Ashby fan, and Houston is lucky to get him back. Nobody is going to fill his shoes in the broadcast booth. My personal wish, though, is that Mike Wilner gets a crack at a more prominent in-game role with Ashby gone. I realize Wilner rubs many the wrong way, and not everyone is a fan, but he's done a difficult on-air job for a long time, and has paid his media dues. There's a lot to be said for that. And while it's easy to rag on media personalities (fun too!), it's not easy to go onto the radio or television and be interesting and original a couple hundred times a year.
Oliver: It's a distasteful bit of business Darren Oliver is engaged in right now with the Jays, isn't it? I've read plenty on the subject and still don't know whose side I'm on (and if Twitter has taught me anything, it's that we absolutely must take sides on every issue. There is no middle ground). I don't think the team will trade him to Texas just because he asked, which leaves retirement or a raise. Part of me says Alex Anthopoulos should tell him to go pound sand, and run J.A. Happ and Brett Cecil out as the lefty relievers to start the season alongside Sergio Santos, Casey Janssen, Brad Lincoln, Steve Delabar and Esmil Rogers -- with Aaron Loup and Jeremy Jeffress a short car ride away. But then sometimes I think this instead:
Put it this way: whatever Oliver gets at the end of this -- retirement or a raise -- he'll deserve it.