Chicago of the North

PAUL FRIESEN, Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 10:51 PM ET

Problem: interest in NHL pre-season games between lousy teams with no local connection has declined so sharply, it’s hardly worth the trouble to stage them.

Solution: bring in the Original Six Chicago Blackhawks, who just happen to be coming off a stirring Stanley Cup run and who happen to have one of the best talents to ever come out of Winnipeg as their team captain.

After seeing attendance decline for teams like Phoenix, Edmonton, even the Maple Leafs the last few years, the new barn on Portage Avenue swelled with a near full house Wednesday night to watch Jonathan Toews and the Hawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in a game that meant diddly squat.

Sure, there were some Lightning jerseys and a sign or two in the crowd. And when phenom Steven Stamkos opened the scoring, there were more than a few cheers.

But there was no denying who the home team was, even if the Lightning claimed that spot on the scoresheet, not to mention the bank ledger.

Yes, packing up and moving your operation to hockey-mad Manitoba for a “home” pre-season game is more profitable then asking your own fans to come to the rink in Florida.

Never mind that hardly anybody’s cheering for you.

Clearly, the Canadian prairie town that used to be known as the Chicago of the North is just that when it comes to NHL hockey.

Maybe it’s because we’re both windy, both blue-collar.

Or maybe it’s because we’ve shared some big-league talent over the years, from Winnipeg boy Billy Mosienko playing for the Hawks to Bobby Hull bolting the Hawks for the ’Peg back in the 1970s.

“I’ve been a Chicago fan since before Bobby Hull joined the Jets,” a proud Robert Froude, a 52-year-old who came all the way down from Thompson, said before the game.

Froude has traded in his Hull jersey for one celebrating Toews, making him one of a few hundred in the stands wearing the famous Indian head on the front, No. 19 on the back.

From teenaged girls to beer-drinking guys to middle-aged men like Eric Peterson, Toews is the man.

Peterson, a 39-year-old Winnipegger who works in radio sales, chose the Team Canada version of the Toews attire, which meant a switch to No. 16.

“He represents Winnipeg very well,” Peterson said. “He’s what we’d all like to think of ourselves as. A classy guy. Plays the game the right way and does things the right way.”

At this point his six-year-old son, Odin chimes in.

“He won the gold medal and the Stanley Cup,” the kid said, perhaps realizing the enormity of that accomplishment, perhaps not.

Aside from being a Toews fan, Peterson represents another type of Winnipeg hockey fan, a segment that has mixed feelings about paying NHL money to watch two teams from somewhere else.

“I’m a Jets fan in hibernation,” he explained. “Frozen until that day comes.”

Admittedly, Peterson has no idea when that’ll be.

“Sometime between next year and 2017,” he said, admitting he picked 2017 out of thin air. Desert air.

Next year, of course, carries the tantalizing proposition of the Phoenix Coyotes packing up and leaving Arizona for their original home.

The NHL, which owns the Coyotes, has set a Dec. 31 deadline for the city of Glendale, Ariz., to find a new owner, or else the team will move north.

Talk about a potentially wild New Year’s Eve party.

“That would be the preferable thing for me, the symmetry in that,” Peterson said. “But it could be any team.”

As long as it’s ours.

Tampa Bay, Edmonton, Toronto, Calgary — we’re not interested anymore.

Chicago, it worked once, thanks to a perfect storm of Olympic proportions.

But if Wednesday night is the last time we see a pre-season game without a real home team, we won’t mind a bit.


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