This past weekend, I decided to hop in the Pontiac and drive eight hours to hang out in Spokane, Washington. While there, I had some of the best hostesses the city could ask for, which consisted of Princess Curl, The Canadian, and NoStache16; who deserve plenty of thanks for helping me navigate through the thriving metropolis of Spokane. Of course, I planned my trip around the Spokane Chiefs, who were playing the Kootenay Ice in some fantastic WHL action for the weekend.
While I do live in Calgary where the WHL's Hitmen reside, the fact of the matter is that they aren't the only game in town and really aren't the primary hockey focus. Spokane, the only hockey focus is in town is the Chiefs and you can see the true community interaction in terms of interaction amongst people and their love of the team. I experienced that with "The Panel" after the game at the fine Spokane establishment, The Onion; which I thought was a parody of a real restaurant....get it??
Anyway, the community as a whole knew their players very well in terms of disecting their play, knew their habits when it came to playing alongside certain teammates, and pretty much knew the inner workings of the team from a playing level and to an extent, a marketing level. The sad thing is that this team could be so much more, but you couldn't see a billboard in this town about the Chiefs unless you went to the "Roll up the windows and lock the doors" part of Spokane. Yet, the announced 6,702 knew where to show up and showed off their passion for their team every goal. As an aside, the Chiefs went on to beat the Ice, 3-1.
But the community aspect is something you can only seem to get a feel for in most major junior hockey cities and minor league towns, where the team is what brings a community together and where the fans become family through the team. If you notice in both cases, the teams are built in smaller areas or show up in smaller areas, where it's the only thing in town to talk about or care about. You look at the major junior leagues, especially in the WHL-- the towns are mostly smaller towns. I know driving through Cranbrook, BC; they pride themselves in being the home to the Kootenay Ice, because for the most part that would be what the town is known for other than being in-between two resort stops in Alberta and BC. Other towns in the Dub like Swift Current (Sask.), Kennewick (Wash.), and Prince George (BC) are other examples of the small town team and how a community can rally around a team.
Minor league teams are the same way, mostly from ECHL level on down, though you can have some AHL teams get the appeal of the community-- though with many teams relocating in many years; it's hard to say the community can actually come together and support the team in their town. But you go to message boards around, like Into the Boards, and the support for the low minor teams is insane and really good to see. Many of these people have become very close acquaintences because of these boards and because of this interaction. Many have actually gotten married because of the interaction through the boards and then manifested that into real life. It combines the love for a common interest and new media.
I guess through this rambling diatribe, it shows that people don't need to be NHL fans in order to enjoy the game and grow from the game. These fans in the junior and minor league towns are very invested in their team and take pride when their players they've watched go onto bigger things after they leave the town. In fact, to some point I think that these fans are a little more knowledgeable and insightful about the game as a whole because they have to do more research because of the fact their local news outlets don't report on the sport, much less the team, on a daily basis.
To these people, I salute your dedication and salute your support of the team, even if you're the only support that the team has. Local teams are the backbone of many towns and brings people together who may not have come together otherwise-- people you've got to school with, but didn't hang out in the same cliques in order to meet-up and get to know each other. The world works in mysterious ways for sure.