Trying to decide how to write this article was hard, partially because my feelings are torn over the whole issue. Route A is to get super maudlin and weep over a despicable future world devoid of novelty glasses (and fans) full of Sparks. Route B is to tell all the things that those glasses of Sparks and LaBatt Blue produced as I reminisce about my favorite moments. List articles are the most commonly abused cop-out in any form of print, however, so that idea got scratched. And while I might not be sobbing like a figure skater in the succeeding paragraphs, it's understandbly not going to be slapstick and circus clowns, either.
When I heard that Fargo was getting a junior team again, I was a freshman in college and I couldn't have been more thrilled. The Ice Sharks had moved to Chicago when I was a freshman in high school and I had missed having a team around ever since then. Even with the caveat that this was going to be a step below the USHL, the nation's highest level of junior hockey, I didn't really care. My purpose for going to the games wasn't necessarily to watch the future Hobey Baker winner, it was to drink Canadian beer and watch pucks and pugilists. I was legitimately excited by the news and I rewarded the new ownership for bringing this joy back into my life by attending probably three games all year besides the playoffs. Way to go, Leonardite.
I'm not saying that my personal attendance had anything to do with the Jets staying or leaving, but fans who come to low-level junior games on their volition are a pretty rare breed and one that the franchises need to desperately accomodate in any way that they can. 75% of the crowd is there because they're related to one of the players, are host parents of the players, or are sneaking the guys into the bars later since they're all under 21. Take away the kids doing community service by cleaning up post-game trash and you've got realistically, maybe 100 people there who are there purely to watch the game. If I, who was calling friends in excitement over the news that the juniors were back, couldn't drag my dead ass four blocks in the mundane North Dakota winter, then why would anyone else show up?
Shockingly things improved. Not only did I attend almost every home game and a handful of road games the next season, but the team was outstanding as well, losing a single playoff game, the national title game. Attendance on the whole was also greatly improved. The average crowd increased something like 30% and the old barn was pretty full most nights. One thing that pisses me off about the Jets folding/moving/sublimating is that local newspaper columnists [Mike McFeely] who I never saw in the building one time are reporting on the attendance and history of the team as if they have a clue. The Jets weren't exactly threatening the Indians' sell-out streak at Jacobs Field, but the constant reports of how the Jets "never drew" is false to be polite, and speculative bullshit to be accurate. When the team was hot and the buzz around the team was good, the Jets drew. I'm sure it wasn't enough to make money, but just because certain sports columnists were too busy working on golf articles in January to attend a Jets' game doesn't mean that nobody else did.
As a result of my new connections with the broadcaster and the then-director of gameday operations, I was writing on the team website and getting into the games for free, so in the interest of full disclosure, I may be biased in some of my views. For all the money I gave back to the team in terms of merchandise (including an ungodly ugly St. Patrick's Day jersey which I handsomely compensated a charity for) and most significantly, beer, the drop in the bucket that was the absence of my paid admission was justified. This is a good time to bring up the former general manager of the team, who harassed me on more than one occasion because he felt I was apparently screwing him out of the six dollars that were going to save the franchise. The guy had absolutely no concept of accomodating a fan base and anyone who spent more than ten minutes around him quickly understood that he was a complete asshole who was in way over his head both in running a hockey team and in getting out of bed in the morning. Thankfully, Scott Montesano and Steve Strasheim recognized my small contribution to the team and kept getting me in the door. More importantly, with my six-dollar-a-night bias in mind, they also kept the non-hockey end of the team afloat. I will swear to the bitter end that the team would have folded years earlier without their presence in the front office to complement the very good handling of the hockey side of things by the coaches.
My unspoken hope for the Jets all along was for them to survive long enough to carry me through college. They succeeded in that regard and this year I moved away to go to law school. As a result, I didn't see a single game all season long. I'm almost glad about that, because I've heard it was a pretty depressing season. The reason is that on the south side of Fargo, a sparkling new hockey arena is going up, complete the return of the USHL in 2009. The 2008 Jets were essentially the Charlestown Chiefs minus, presumably, commentary on the sexual persuasion of Hanrahan's wife. Our usual group has all mostly moved away, general attendance was way down, and the team was garbage for the first time. The only thing I feel bad about is that the old GM was presumably returned to day care and Strasheim was elevated to general manager, which had to be like getting the keys to the Rolls Royce only after it fell off the delivery trailer and was flatened by a Kenworth. Steve's situation was utterly impossible, but I give him credit for riding out the storm.
On the other hand, I had some very good times in Carlson Coliseum in the past few years. I'm going to miss going to games with our usual crowd of drunks, but the reality is that that would've ended this year anyway. I feel bad for everyone in the office looking for work, but I'm sure they've been prepared all year for the inevitable anyway. Still, it's hard to get as invested in the Jets as we all did the past few years, even if that investment was mostly built on pilsners and swearing, and not feel sad about the Jets leaving. Ultimately, I really wish the Jets had been sold and the team elevated to the USHL. The existing fans would have followed happily to the new setting and most importantly, I wouldn't be sitting with a closet full of obsolete merchandise.
Even if the Jets had moved to the UP Center and to the USHL, the dynamic would have been completely different. The Force are gearing everything towards corporate customers and season ticket holders, whereas the typical Jets fan was a Hardee's customer and a Molson Ice holder. I proudly admit my membership in the latter category and this vibe, combined with the dumpy old arena, was pretty fun to be a part of. Alas, it's not too tough to guess which business model is more suited to sustaining a franchise. And if the hope is to keep a team around for good - which it should be and is - then the arrival of the Force and the UP Center should be welcomed.
Thanks for the memories and the hangovers, Jets. Thanks to Steve and Scott for making it worthwhile the past few years. And thank you to the Cougher and the Pounder, two extraordinary personalities who I will sorely miss, and hope to see at the Force games in some capacity.