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As many sports organizations have realized, heritage is an asset that can be used for a variety of needs and in numerous circumstances. We have seen many kinds of ways heritage have been used in sports, from throwback apparel and uniforms to retro stadiums to nostalgia-based events and experiences (like fantasy camps). Many teams, such as the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, also view their historic stadiums as assets which provide both cultural capital as well as economic benefits (the Red Sox have the second highest revenue generating ballpark in MLB, despite the capacity, in large part because of Fenway’s history and heritage).
When a team moves venues, often for economic reasons, there is normally a celebration of the old venue. Often, as in the case of Yankee Stadium, Anfield, or the Montreal Forum, the old stadium was beloved and reflect the fact that – paraphrasing sports geographer John Bale – sports stadiums are more than utilitarian structures and many supporters feel a strong sense of attachment to them. In the case of both the new Yankee Stadium and the Molson Centre (which replaced the Montreal Forum), care was taken to provide a blend of old and new – where the new venue has either direct references or explicit echoes to the previous stadium (as Anouk Belanger notes, the Montreal Canadiens had a parade of ghosts from one venue to the other). There was generally an acknowledgment by the teams that, though fans loved the old venue, the new venue would provide the club much needed benefits while also maintaining the sense of place and tradition.
However, this year there are two examples of teams celebrating the final seasons at venues that – to employ an overused phrase – they “threw under the bus.” The Edmonton Oilers, who are set to move to the new Rogers Place in Fall of 2016, are celebrating the final season in their longtime home, Rexall Place (nee: Northlands Coliseum; Edmonton Coliseum; Skyreach Centre).
Rexall Place, architecturally, is unimpressive, but as a venue that has hosted numerous notable events – particularly as a hockey venue – it undoubtedly has broad historic value. However, in securing a new arena deal, the arena was denigrated as “antiquated and outdated“. In fact, there appears to have been little mention that the venue had any heritage value at all until the “Farewell Season” commemorations were announced.
Similarly, the Atlanta Braves are set to commemorate the final season at Turner Field during the 2016 season.
The Braves inherited Turner Field, as it was previously built for the 1996 Olympics then converted to a baseball stadium. As such, the Braves were never particularly fond of the stadium or location, and so a celebration of the final year at a (shockingly recent) venue is a bit odd.
Celebrating the final season at a venue can have benefits for both team and spectator. For the team, it can provide an additional revenue stream through memorabilia, as well as an incentive to come to games that season. For fans, it allows them to experience the venue one more time, relive memories, and provides a transition to the new stadium. The tone of both the Oilers and Braves commemorations are a little different though, in that neither organization will shed a tear for their old venues given the apathy and, in the Oilers case, hostility towards their former homes. While I suspect the teams would have had commemorations anyway, the fact that both are teams have had or are expected to have little success in their final seasons, the heritage angle to “visit one last time” is probably an effective motivator for fans to go to games, purchase merchandise, and perhaps acquire memorabilia like seats, turf, signage and the like after the final out/whistle. It is the one season when, very likely, “just being there” rather than victories is incentive enough for fans to turn out. That said, these two celebrations this year come across as slightly hollow, particularly when compared to how other teams have seemingly handled these occasions.
One of the topics that has occupied heritage studies research lately is the process of heritagization; that is to say, the process whereby various pasts are constructed in the present to address a contemporary need, issue or circumstance. As any heritage studies scholar will (or, perhaps, should) know, heritage is about the present and an imagined future – it is never about the past. We leave the past to historians and archaeologists to critically assess.
What we don’t often talk about is de-heritagization; that is, when a heritage is no longer useful in the present and becomes part of, to employ an overused phrase, “the dustbin of history.” We talk of heritages changing, or heritages being malleable, but rarely of heritages simply becoming, for lack of a better term, “not heritage.” Perhaps in some cases – such as when a post-colonial regime looks to new national symbols, for example – heritage truly does transform into materials reserved for the historian or archaeologist. In any event, they are no longer part of our contemporary needs – we no longer use them and, as such, they are no longer heritage.
These thoughts came to me recently when I began to consider aspects of my personal sporting heritage and, in particular, how they became simply a part of my personal history and not my contemporary identity. The first was when I was in my hometown of Edmonton recently shopping for a used pair of hockey skates. I was a goaltender for most of my life, including through all of my adulthood, and made certain I brought my goaltending equipment with me to South Carolina seven years ago. However, the lack of local hockey opportunities coupled with a busy career and home life meant that continuing to play goal – a central part of my identity throughout my life – was not an option. I certainly thought about playing at times, to the point that I found out my goalie skates had fallen into disrepair and were no longer useable. When I looked for a replacement pair of skates a few weeks ago, I immediately went to the goalie skates when it dawned on me: I am no longer a goaltender, and will never be again. Most of my equipment – and not just my skates – have fallen into disrepair, I have little desire to replace my equipment and, though I might occasionally pine for another game in net, I am quite alright with that part of my sporting life being over. Simply put, being a goaltender is no longer part of my contemporary identity and has ceased (for the time being) to be part of my heritage. This is not to say that it won’t be resurrected as heritage at some point – if my son takes up goaltending, for example, we’ll probably talk about our family’s goaltending heritage. But, for now, it is simply a part of my past.
Similarly, I was recently in Winnipeg, Manitoba when I came across the many advertisements for the city’s NHL hockey team, the Jets. The Jets were, of course, the Atlanta Thrashers at one point – and I was a Thrashers season ticket holder. The franchise’s move to Winnipeg was personally quite difficult. I had come to strongly identify myself as a Thrashers fan, and going to games in Atlanta was one of the ways I came to embrace my new Southern home. I felt quite bitter towards the sport, league, and fans of the Jets for some time. Being in Winnipeg, however, and seeing all of those Jets banners didn’t really hurt anymore. While I can’t say I’ll ever become a fan, they became just another team, and my Thrashers fandom became simply part of my biography and, again, not my identity.
These two personal examples, though hardly earth-shattering, made me think not just about how something becomes heritage, but how we let particular heritages go. Again, we see the letting go of heritage all the time – and it can frequently be a painful and divisive process. And, certainly, some heritages must change and become “history” – for a variety of social, political, and economic reasons. However, I think it is worth investigating the de-heritagization process, particularly in sport. Sport heritage no longer used is not heritage – by definition, it cannot be. I would like to say that there are, for example, Olympic cities in the act of forgetting or “de-heritagizing” – perhaps through neglect, or simply through a new generation not being tied to the symbols of the old. Obviously, each generation creates its own sporting heritage and, perhaps, through the ephemeral creation and consumption of heritage, particular sporting legacies aren’t as durable as they once were. In any event, my two recent personal examples highlighted to me that the idea of letting go of particular heritages is as important to understand as why we created them in the first place.
I have long had a fascination with the Soviet Union and, in particular, Soviet sport. As a child of the late Cold War period, I was certainly aware of the dominance of many Soviet teams and athletes. They appeared disciplined, focused, and absolutely invincible. As a Canadian and a dedicated hockey fan, I was made very aware – and, I believe, at a very young age – about the glorious Canadian victory over the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. My knowledge of the Miracle on Ice came later, but by that time I knew that a victory over the Soviets was both very difficult and exceedingly rare. While the political and ideological aspects of Soviet versus US/Canada rivalries escaped me until much later, there was always something different about matches against the Soviet Union. There have been few times I have been as nervous watching a sporting event as I did in 1987, as the NHL All Stars narrowly defeated the Soviets in a three game series, and any competition against the Soviets was something “special” – and, not always in the most pleasant of ways.
Still, there was always a deep respect for the Soviet teams and players that accompanied the fear of them. Many friends and family would tell me about the skill and abilities of Soviet players, even as they passionately rooted against them. As a goalie, I knew about Vladislav Tretiak even though, by the time he retired in 1984, I had only seen him play on a handful of occasions. When I was a teenager, in fact, I got to attend a goaltending camp in Edmonton with Tretiak and, later as an undergraduate exchange student in Moscow in 1997, I got to meet with him for nearly two hours – which, to this day, is one of my most memorable and enjoyable experiences of my life.
However, as much as there was an admiration of Soviet teams and players, they always seemed to be dismissed when it came to recognizing their impact, accomplishments, and legacy. Only a handful of Soviet players and coaches are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, for example, with some commentators – particularly in the Canadian sports media – dismissing the accomplishments of Soviet teams. However, it appears that Soviet hockey is being looked at again, in large part because of two recent documentaries.
Both Red Army and Of Miracles and Men re-examine the development of Soviet hockey, looking at the players and people who made the Soviet team nearly invincible (For the record, I have not seen Red Army. Hopefully, it will be available here in South Carolina sometime later this year). Of Miracles and Men, one of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series, does a magnificent job of humanizing Soviet players and understanding the major challenges they faced as individuals and as a team. Perhaps more than that, it makes the viewer realize both how remarkable those Soviet teams were, but just how awful it was at times playing in the environment that many of them did – with unrelenting coaches, administrators, and political pressure. From my vantage point, it is one of the best of the 30 for 30 series – and, it appears that it is available to watch on line for free for a limited time (seriously, it is fantastic!).
Perhaps one of the questions to ask, particularly from a heritage perspective, is why there is a renewed interest in Soviet hockey at this time? Some of it may simply be that the passage of time has made revisiting this past contextually interesting, and that the archival material – not to mention the players – are more available than they were in the past. We are nearly a quarter century since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (has it really been that long?), and there may also be a sense of nostalgia for the team and the rivalries – and, perhaps even for the geopolitical certainty of a defined “enemy.” Perhaps some of it may be tied to material culture – seems that Soviet kitsch never goes out of style. Maybe globalization plays a role, in that places like the Hockey Hall of Fame are welcoming more and more international visitors who wish to see their heritage represented. However, I think more than anything, there is a realization that hockey’s heritage narrative was simply incomplete; that, perhaps like talking about baseball’s history without mentioning the Negro Leagues, the Cold War era narrative in hockey was, at best, reductionist and, at worst, reviled. We are a little more attuned (I hope) to jingoistic nationalism (certainly re-watching the 1972 Summit Series, I realized just what jackasses many of the Canadian player were) and that understanding the “enemy,” not as a faceless robot, but as a human being with hopes and dreams and aspirations might be a mark of our maturity. In any event, it is wonderful to see that the Soviet hockey story is starting to be revealed, as the recognition of it is long overdue.
Last weekend, I had the chance to visit Philadelphia for the first time. The reason for my visit was a brief get-together with my older brother, who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. We don’t get a chance to see each other very often these days, and Philadelphia was a short, non-stop flight for both of us to meet up, have a couple of beers, and watch a sporting event or two.
Before I get to the sport heritage part of the trip, I have to say that Philadelphia is a great city! I was only there for a few days, mind you, and I was staying at a VRBO in the “old city” about three blocks from the Independence Hall World Heritage Site. That said, I found it a very walkable city with some some really neat neighbourhoods, great museums (I wish I could have visited more of them), and good food and drink. The people we met there were “authentic” – as convoluted as that word is. They didn’t put on airs, I guess, and I imagine had we pissed them off, they’d tell us so. In general, when we told people we were from out of town, they were glad we visited, gave us a bit of friendly advice (like – if you’re going to an Eagles game, cheer for the Eagles…even if you like the other team), and generally let us be. Was rather refreshing, actually.
However, one cannot partake in a sports trip to Philadelphia without noticing that city’s sport heritage is very prominent. Even in the city centre, steps away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, was an advertisement for a recent baseball exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History:
Of course, I wrote recently about the tension that (appears) to exist between the city’s “real” sport heritage and its fictionalized portrayals. However, one cannot escape that the sporting past plays a huge role in the city’s current identity.
The city has a quasi-“arena district” just outside of the city centre that houses the baseball stadium, football stadium, and hockey/basketball arena, with a kind-of bar/entertainment facility called Xfinity Live. Now, the arena district is, basically, the three venues, the bar facility, and parking lots. However, it is the city’s sport heritage that gives the district a sense of place. Xfinity Live, for example, is on the one-time site of the Spectrum, long-time home of the NHL Flyers and NBA 76ers. Inside the venue, the Spectrum is remembered…in bar form:
The heyday of the Philadelphia Flyers are also recalled at Xfinity Live (and, also in bar form). The Flyers were known as the “Broad Street Bullies” during the 1970s, as the team was known for their aggressive style of play, and so fans can now soak-in the nostalgia at a Flyers-themed pub:
Around Xfinity Live are statues of ex-players, such as 76ers player “Dr. J” – Julius Erving. Perhaps most interesting was the statue of long-time anthem singer at the Spectrum, Kate Smith:
Smith’s rendition of God Bless America was a bit of a talisman for Philadelphia teams, particularly the Flyers. Whenever she sang, the Flyers almost always won. After she passed away, the Flyers used to show a video of her singing, particularly if they really needed a victory:
We managed to go to a Flyers game and Eagles game during our stay. The Flyers arena, the Wells Fargo Center, is about 20 years old, so it doesn’t have a lengthy history. That said, there were a few reminders of the Flyers glorious past, as well as some displays honouring past players – including the late, great Pelle Lindbergh, who was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in the mid 1980s until he died in a car crash at age 26:
The Flyers game itself was fantastic, with the home team holding on for a 4-3 victory versus the Colorado Avalanche:
The Eagles game was played on the day before Veterans Day, so the patriotism was particularly prominent before game time:
The game itself was a bit of a laugher, as the Eagles beat the visiting Carolina Panthers 45-21. While I’m a Panthers fan, I did root for the Eagles – I think I may have only spotted one other Panthers fan, and I imagine he might have received his fair share of abuse during the game. Eagles fans REALLY love the Eagles:
Great trip, all in all, but it did also got me thinking about a couple of heritage/sport heritage items and issues:
- Legitimacy and commodification: The city has a remarkable sport heritage – in part, perhaps, because they have a notable and lengthy sport history. The breadth and depth of the city’s sporting past gave the heritage markers legitimacy and, I suppose, made them more more apt to be commodified (in bar form and otherwise). In other words, the city’s sport history made its sport heritage more recognizable, gave it greater resonance, and made it easier to sell to a broad-base of fans.
- Different sports generating more/fewer sport heritage markers: It seemed that, at least to my eye, that the Flyers seem to have cornered the market on sport heritage markers in Philadelphia – or, at least in the arena district. Despite the presence of the Phillies and Eagles stadiums – and the likelihood that both the baseball and football teams have more support than the hockey team – most of the heritage, from the bars to the displays to the statues, were hockey-based. Not sure if it is down to ownership of places like Xfinity Live, or if the Flyers have just done a better job of using heritage in marketing, or if fans are just more nostalgic about the Flyers than the Eagles, Phillies, and 76ers.
- Heritage retail: As far as I know, there hasn’t been much done on heritage retail. That is to say, either retail stores that sell heritage products (in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin is a commodity), or shopping districts, stores, or eateries that are meant to look “olde timey.” Philadelphia has heritage retail in spades, and I wonder whether it might be a good case study.
- Public/private heritage spaces: Not sport heritage, but the Independence Mall area of Philadelphia has a curious blend of public and private run heritage attractions/retail, etc. That is to say, it is somewhat unclear at times whether a space is public (that is to say, publicly operated through the National Parks Service) or Private (either as a CVB, museum, gift shop, or other heritage attraction). At times, the aesthetic of the attractions and employees are so similar (and, at times, the spaces are so intermingled) that it is not always clear who runs what, and to what end.
Last Friday, I talked sport heritage on The Jason Strudwick Show on TSN 1260 Radio in Edmonton, Canada. Jason is a former National Hockey League player, having played over 600 games for several teams – including the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks – before retiring in 2012.
Jason and I talked a bit about The Sport Heritage Review website and how I came to be involved in sport heritage. We discussed the transference of sport heritage from one venue to another, a topic discussed in several research papers including Belanger’s study about the Molson Centre in Montreal, Gammon and Fear’s study of the tours of Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and my study (along with Gammon and Huang) of borrowed heritage at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. On more of a nostalgia front, Jason and I briefly reminisced about our shared hockey past, as we were teammates in minor hockey about 25 years ago. It was a fun chat, and I hope Jason and I get to gabbing again sometime soon.
In any event, the interview is about 15 minutes long and in two parts. The links for each part of the interview are below. Happy listening!
Part #1(Interview begins at approximately the 43 minute mark)
Part #2 (Interview continues for approximately 10 minutes at the beginning of the hour)
I’ve long been a fan of well-written sports literature. Part of this interest comes from the day job (or, perhaps, the interest in sports lit lead to the day job. Chicken, egg, etc.) though I normally read sports lit for pleasure regardless of what is going on research-wise. Of course, sometimes the sports lit does make it’s way into my research, and more often than not my pleasure reading will inspire research directions, but in general I just like a good sports book. Although I will occasionally read more fluffy sports biographies and memoirs, I tend to drift towards those books with a broader social, culture, historical, and aesthetic direction. However, during the summer, I like a good sports “beach book” as well – something with a bit of heft but not so weighty as to feel like assigned reading for a graduate sport sociology or sports geography class. Thus, while I believe CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to be a masterpiece of literature – sport or otherwise – I think it might be too dense for a this list. You don’t bring Moby Dick to the cabana, after all.
With that in mind, here are a few of my favourite sports “beach books.” Each of these, I believe, are engrossing reads while also being a bit more critical or introspective. Some are very well known, others are a little obscure. In any event, I hope you find a couple of them as interesting and engaging to read as I did.
The Following Game by Jonathan Smith – Last August I wrote at length about The Following Game and, I must admit, it is a book to which I return often. I won’t add much to what I wrote last summer, except to say that it is a beautiful, gentle, and very wise book. Essential, even if you don’t like or know nothing about cricket.
Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy by Ed Hawkins and The Fix by Declan Hill – The integrity of sporting results, particularly the role the international gambling market plays in setting particular outcomes, is a important contemporary issue. Although match fixing has been around as long as sport, instantaneous communications makes sports gambling an international phenomenon. While Hawkins explores cricket betting, particularly in India, and Hill looks at match fixing in soccer, each offer fascinating insights into how easy it is to manipulate results. And, well, both read a bit like spy novels too – which makes them even better.
Open by Andre Agassi – Famous for Agassi confessing that he hates tennis despite having been one of the world’s top players, it is also probably the best sports memoir I have ever read. It is very well-written and absolutely engrossing from first page to last.
Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson – This book is, in some ways, a contemporary version of Dave Meggyesy’s classic Out of their League, where Jackson describes – in unflinching details – the life of an everyday, average NFL player. You see the glory, but you also see the guts – and it ain’t pretty.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – Still holds up, even two-decades later. This is more than a memoir of a life lived through Arsenal football, it is an anthropology of fandom. And, it also features some of the most memorable lines in sports literature (“I fell in love with football as I was to later fall in love with women…” etc.)
Slouching Towards Fargo by Neal Karlen – A year in the life of the (very) minor league St. Paul Saints, Karlen’s book is far from a romantic view of America’s favourite pastime. A very unvarnished look at the desperation of minor league baseball.
Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs – If you’re beach books include poetry, and perhaps of the more intense variety, Maggs’ semi-fictional account of Terry Sawchuk, one of hockey’s greatest and most tragic figures, is well worth a read. There are many great hockey books, though this is probably the best of the lot.
Tropic of Hockey by Dave Bidini – Part travelogue, part search for the soul of hockey, Bidini looks for the commonalities that link those of us who play (or played) the game in different corners of the globe. As someone who played competitively, but also later loved his weekly game of “shinny” with the boys, Bidini’s book shows that we all share a bond through the game regardless of our geography.
The Great Tamasha by James Astill – Cricket, and in particular the dramatic changes in the sport from where three-hour T20 matches complete with celebrities, cheerleaders, and exploding scoreboards now rule the roost, becomes a metaphor for the rapid changes in contemporary India. Page-turner that links sport with geo-politics.
As we enter the Thanksgiving holidays here in the US, I got to thinking about how certain sports or sporting events are associated with holidays and how watching these games – or even having them on in the background – is a traditional part of holiday festivities.
Of course, Thanksgiving in the US means a slate of NFL football games, and having the TV tuned to whichever game(s) might be on is as integral a part of Thanksgiving as having yams and turkey to eat. Here at Clemson, the Thanksgiving weekend seems to always be when the rivalry game between our Tigers the the University of South Carolina Gamecocks takes place, though the TV tradition doesn’t seem to be as strong as the Thursday NFL games – however, in terms of college football, the many bowl games (and, in particular, the Rose Bowl) on New Years Day tends to be traditional television viewing. The NHL is trying to start a Thanksgiving/television tradition with a game on Friday afternoon of the weekend, though it remains to be seen whether this “tradition” takes hold. I seem to recall that Boxing Day (December 26) in the UK is strongly associated with going to football or rugby matches – though, I don’t know to what extent television plays a role in that tradition. Being from Canada, the World Junior Hockey Championships are synonymous with the Christmas holidays, as I can recall many Christmas mornings having a Team Canada game on in the background from Helsinki or Riga or Moscow as we opened presents from under the tree.
It seems that many of these sport/television traditions are during the winter months, and perhaps are not the focus of attention either – as I say they are often part of the background but, I would suggest, they would be noticeable by their absence. It would be kind of strange not having football on in the background at a Thanksgiving Day feast.
In any event, I am wondering what other sporting events might be considered traditional and associated with both watching the game on television – perhaps with family and friends – and particular holidays?
EDIT: Of course, I completely forgot about all of the NBA games on Christmas Day and the NHL’s Winter Classic outdoor game on New Years Day.
Typically, when a sports organization represents it’s heritage, it is normally done for good reasons – or, at least reasons that benefit the organization. Whether it be honouring past championships or superstars, famous games or performances, or even unveiling some form of retro jersey or souvenir, the organization is meant gain something through representing something of it’s past – be it legitimacy, loyalty and, often, some financial benefit.
Which is why two recent heritage-based stories from the National Hockey League are so strange. Two teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers – both of which can boast of famous moments, players, and championship teams from their pasts – decided to remove many of the heritage “markers” from their dressing room/players lounge areas of their respective arenas. In each case, the decision was made to remove the reminders of past glories in order to relieve the current players of, in essence, the burden of the teams’ glorious heritage. Both were couched as “changes in culture” – and, perhaps it is not a coincidence that neither team has had much success in recent years. Ultimately, the Maple Leafs decided to leave their heritage markers in place after a public backlash (The Oilers’ decision happened this past weekend, so it remains to be seen if the public in Edmonton reacts similarly to Toronto) but what makes these decisions strange is not that these teams cherry picked their pasts to address current needs and concerns (of course, if we understand heritage as the present use of the past, then this is the case with all heritage representations) but that these two teams seem to have abandoned heritages that, frankly, have been wildly successful.
I will admit to not knowing the uses of the Maple Leafs heritage as well as the Oilers, but I do know that the Air Canada Centre – the Maple Leafs home arena – is a repository of Leaf’s heritage. Even though the arena is a little under twenty years old and hasn’t witnessed much hockey success the past two decades, it seamlessly adopted the heritage of the beloved Maple Leaf Gardens. The last Maple Leafs Stanley Cup in 1967 is lore in the city of Toronto, though in the ensuing decades there have been many Leafs players that the fans have grown to love and honour as integral aspects to the team’s heritage. In fact, it could be said that the Leaf’s heritage is one of its main assets – they were, essentially, English Canada’s team when the NHL was only six franchises and, as such, they formed a strong bond with hockey supporters across Canada.
In the case of the Edmonton Oilers, the team was one of the most dynamic and successful sports teams (not just hockey teams) during the 1980s and early 1990s. They boasted some of the greatest players in the history of the NHL – Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, and Grant Fuhr to name just a few. A decade ago, they purposefully commodified their history, creating an event called The Heritage Classic, an outdoor hockey game that brought back many of their former star players to play one last time (the organization also made a significant amount of money from the event, likely in the order of $6M CAD). Simply put, the “glory days” for the Oilers is one of their prized possessions – and, one in which the organization has used particularly in bad times to remind fans to keep supporting the team.
In sport heritage, as with all heritage, organizations have inherited good legacies and bad legacies. Normally, organizations will chose to represent the heritage that helps them today (no one at the Oilers waxes nostalgic for the mid 1990s, for example, when the team was terrible, the arena was empty, and the franchise nearly relocated to Houston). But, it is strange for sports organizations to so hotly reject glorious legacies; legacies that have been very useful, that are popular, and that have become touchstones for supporters – whether they witnessed them or not. It is assumed that heritage can be a commodity in sport – from banner-rasings of retired numbers, to stadium constructions that mimic historic facilities, to the plethora of retro (or retro-looking) apparel and memorabilia. I never thought I would see two organizations, steeped in heritage, that would see positive legacies as liabilities and actively choose to be, in essence, ahistorical.
I’ve never been much of a souvenir collector – with two notable exceptions. I have always collected ticket stubs, particularly from sporting events, and I have amassed a rather large collection of sports jerseys over the years. Neither collection was intentionally compiled – as in, I never consciously had a thought to keep ticket stubs or fill a closet full of jerseys – but, in both cases, and rather organically, I have done both. What links both my ticket stub collection and my jersey collection (both of which are embarrassingly large, I might add), besides the fact that they are sports-focused, are that they each are about personal memories and nostalgia. I suspect any sports memorabilia person would look at these collections and see little of any monetary value at all. But, to me, they bring back a wealth of memories – great games, wonderful journeys to distant lands, and time spent with family and friends – and that makes my collections priceless. I often find these collections are a source inspiration – that the next game and the next journey may add another sport artefact. However, there are some artefacts in my collection that emit the sweet sorrow of nostalgia, as I know that their power lies in the fact that what they represent is forever in the past and shall never, ever return.
I became an Atlanta Thrashers fan shortly after moving to the South. I loved having an NHL team near to me – I grew up with the game in Canada, and professional hockey in the South was far more affordable to attend live than back home. Honestly, it was nice to see top tier hockey without having to mortgage a house in order to do. However, rather quickly, my interest grew from merely watching NHL games to actually supporting the team. The Thrashers weren’t particularly talented, but they worked hard and, frankly, they looked like a team in need of some love. They had some successful years at the gate but, by the time I came around, they were struggling a bit – both on and off the ice. In any event, when the 2010-11 season rolled around, my wife and I decided to take the plunge and become season ticket holders. Despite the fact we lived two-hours by car from the arena, we loved the ritual of wearing our jerseys, driving in to town and listening to various hockey and non-hockey podcasts, cheering on our boys, and listening to Dan Kamal‘s post-game show until the signal dropped out.
At first, it looked like we had picked a great season to come on board. Through the first thirty games or so, the Thrashers were competitive, and winning much more than they were losing. By mid-December, there was actually a buzz about the team, fans seemed to be coming back, and there was lots of optimism about the team’s future. December 18, 2010 was the pinnacle – a full arena on a Saturday night and a 7-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils, topped off by a hat-trick by tough-guy Eric Boulton.
My wife and I left Philips Arena that night completely enamoured with life and with Thrashers hockey. As it turned out, we refer to that night as “The Last Happy Game.”
The demise of the Thrashers after that game was quick, and very, very painful. Not only did the team begin to lose, and lose often – falling out of playoff contention in the new year – the team was put up for sale in late December 2010 and, after a very short search for local ownership, was moved to Winnipeg in May 2011. We went into a kind-of mourning after the move – I was rather depressed and irritable for some time, and my wife vowed to never love a sports team again. I used to look at the ticket stub from that game against the Devils often in the months after the move, deciding to keep it separate from the rest of my collection – perhaps because it represented something of the antithesis of the rest of my collection. There was no hope, no promise, and no journeys to come.
It has been over two years since the Thrashers last graced the ice in Atlanta. We’ve moved on, both in our fandom and in our lives. For me, I’m not really bitter anymore, but I still miss my team. I try to remember that night in December, not as the beginning of the end, but of one of those magical evenings that happen every once and a while in sport. Without the team moving, I’m sure I wouldn’t remember the night as vividly as I do now. I’m sure the nostalgia I have would simply be trivia. I probably wouldn’t look up what Eric Boulton is doing now, nor would I have purchased the jersey he wore that night.
I plan on framing the ticket and jersey together, hanging it in my basement, and waiting for the day my son asks me about it. I hope to tell him about a great night his mother and I spent watching magic happen, how it was something we’ll always remember, and how it makes us smile. I suppose that’s how heirlooms are created.