We’re flying north, into the darkness. A Canadian winter and daily high temperatures of –9 degrees and a long Canadian night await. But there is also hockey on this Super Bowl weekend.
Canadians are not by nature big supporters of minor league hockey. They prefer their hockey pure. It should be National Hockey League or preferably junior league. So support for an American Hockey League team is unusual.
Winnipeg, however, was the home to the Jets, a World Hockey Association team that saw the Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, skate in the waning years of his career. It is a town that is hoping another hockey god smiles on it again, Mario Lamieux and his Penguins.
The trip was planned long ago, when the idea of the Chicago Bears being in the Super Bowl, of playing this weekend, was little more than wishfulness. And so, amid the orange and blue crowds at O’Hare Airport, heading south for a weekend of partying, we clutched our passports and, like missionaries, headed north to proselytize on the true religion to the natives of the Great White North.
How would they take this invasion of their home turf by people who should more properly be planning what dip to serve on Sunday than discussing the possible Second Coming of the national sport?
As we fly across the international border the sun sets on hundreds of backyard hockey rinks, the glint creating temporary snow blindness. We are not in Kansas anymore, or indeed any state. Below lies the province of Manitoba and the subjects of Queen.
The Manitoba Moose play in the MTS Centre, a home fit for an NHL team. It is a temple, set amid the sacred grove of seats, awaiting the Second Coming of hockey.
But it is not to be. No matter the national support or interest in Canada. No matter the greater penetration of the game into the hearts and homes of its citizens, Gary Bettman and the cabal of businessmen who run this game will select another home for teams that are pulling up stakes. Be it Kansas City or Houston. It will take several teams deciding to leave their homes before the game returns to its roots. It will take the end of the attitudes of owners and a commissioner that measure with a ruler, what can only be measured by Global Positioning.
And, it will take a change in the attitude of local fans. Are they prepared to spend twice as much for a season ticket?
The game is on. The Chicago Wolves and the Manitoba Moose have a long history in another league, the International Hockey League. It was a failed attempt to challenge the dominance of the NHL. Six teams survived the transition, five remain in the AHL, including Chicago and Manitoba.
Instead of being a development league, accepting the challenge of growing young hockey prospects into NHL professionals, the IHL was also seeking veterans. The fans nearby talk about names that created respect and spilled blood, Jimmy Roy, Steve Maltais and Rob Brown included. The local sports writer later talks about threatened gun play, bench clearing brawls and other threats of violence.
But there are no fights tonight. Without their stars, Darren Haydar of the Wolves and Jason Jaffray of the Moose, the teams slug it out under the eye of referee Jeff Smith, who seems allergic to calling penalties. Only 20 minutes of penalties called in 60minutes of play. Smith misses Kevin Doell, his stick stuck in the visor of a Moose--- and the man bleeding to boot.
The game moves back and forth. A first period goal by the Moose answered by just five shots on goal by the Wolves. Freddy Brathwaite, the Wolves goalie, more lucky than good. Lee Goren finishes a frozen puck play by patting Brathwaite on the head.
They were here together on the Moose in Brathwaite’s last visit. And the Moose won that game. Now they are playing against each other. Tomi Santalla is here too. A former Wolf, he was traded to the Moose NHL affiliate. Injured, he happens to be here on a short conditioning assignment.
The second period. Drew MacIntyre is in goal. He was injured and is also in rehab this game. He stops seven of eight Chicago shots in the second period as Nathan Oystrick scores on a power play. MacIntyre and Julien Ellis protect the iron here in Manitoba. Wade "Flats" Flaherty himself now injured. Flats had spent the season in Manitoba, prohibited from going to the NHL by the arcane waiver rules. He had negotiated too good a contract and was subject to waivers going up, as Manchester Monarchs goalie Jason LaBarbera is too.
The third period of play. Manitoba is ahead of Chicago 21 shots to 13. Without their power line, the Wolves are competitive but not in charge. Mike Brown scores on Brathwaite. On a power play, the Wolves knock it past MacIntyre. The puck stops, a foot from the goal. MacIntyre looks around for it, while Brett Sterling skates in behind and pots it. My god was it beautiful!
The score is tied now. Chicago has managed to keep up with the Moose, despite only 26 shots on goal, versus 36 for the Moose. In Overtime Smith gives a hooking penalty to Yannick Tremblay. It is a terrible call. The Moose are short a man and the next goal wins. Smith seems to realize his mistake, and less than a minute later, puts Brett Sterling in the sin bin. Now even up and playing three on three hockey, the teams square off. Brian Fahey puts the game winner past MacIntyre. Wolves win 3-2.
We head back to the hotel. Billy Gardner is explaining how the press box has steel I-beams blocking the views of some of the commentators. A local fan discusses how the MTS building didn’t even invite the Penguins to the city to inspect the facility.
Saturday morning… the weather channel says it is –46 (Celsius) outside. Can spit freeze in such temperatures before it hits the ground? The hotel water is cut off as a pipe break floods the dining facilities. We head into the cold to find poutine and bacon. We must be in Canada.
Game two. A group of school children sing a spirited version of "Oh Canada!" Then, the Moose honor local hero Jonathan Toews. It is another Chicago tie-in. Toews was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL draft. The headline reads "Blackhawks can wait." I wonder how long till it reads "Blackhawk down…"
Toews was a key player in the Canadian victory in the 2007 World Junior Ice Hockey Tournament, including scoring three goals in a semi-final shootout to defeat the US. He was named to the tournament’s all-star team.
There is nothing like the national anthem, followed by a great video, and in this case, a local hero, to get the crowd excited. The Moose take the ice with MacIntyre back in goal, but Jaffray on the ice. Jaffray, it turns out, had taken the night off on Friday to be with his wife on the delivery of his daughter Kennedy.
On the Chicago side, Michael Garnett is in goal. Immediately the difference between Brathwaite and Garnett is evident. The Moose do not have as much respect for Garnett and he battles in a more physical game.
Chicago comes out firing, out shooting the Moose 13 to 9 in a first period remarkable for only two penalties, both on the Moose. Colin Stuart scores near the end of the period, putting the Wolves up by one.
In the second frame, Moose Pretin Ryan and Lee Goren allow the Moose to take the lead. Mike Brown and Guillaume Desbiens are sent off for five minutes for fighting. Again, Smith allows the game to flow, calling only one other minor penalty in the period. Mark Popovic manages to tie the game late in the period, followed almost immediately by Jordan LaVallee and Ryan being sent off for fighting.
Period three. Jon Awe scores a goal with just over five minutes past. Lee Goren answers with a Moose goal about three minutes later. The score is still tied. A back and forth battle starts at center ice. Both teams play hard hockey for a good five minutes, with neither gaining the upper hand. How long can this continue? Even with their seasoning, they must be getting tired? Finally, a letup and the play continues at a lower level.
With less than three minutes left Tremblay scores. Moose lead. Just a minute later and Moose standout Colby Genoway gets two minutes for high-sticking. If the Wolves pull the goalie, they will have six on four till the end of the game, or they tie.
Garnett sits in the net as the players are called over to the bench. Play starts. Suddenly, John Anderson gives Garnett the call. It is six on four hockey. Intense pressure is put on the Moose, but in the end MacIntyre stops them. Moose win 4-3.