With sincerest apologies to Coyotes fans, who are in an especially difficult position.
Dale Hawerchuk was born in Toronto and played major junior in the QMJHL*. He was drafted by Winnipeg, where he set records for nine years, and then traded to Buffalo. He skated briefly in St. Louis, ended his playing career in Philadelphia, and now coaches in Barrie. And yet it is only in an arena in Arizona that his number 10 hangs, retired, over the ice.
There’s something absurd and slightly grotesque about that banner, as if it represents in one swath of fabric the whole Kafkaesque enterprise that is the Coyotes, the entire labyrinthine edifice of white lies and half-truths that keep the dream no one ever actually dreamt of ice hockey in the desert tenuously alive. It is a monument to a history that didn’t happen, a memory that no one has. It is, fundamentally, the glorification of a technicality. Nearly every other banner that hangs in the NHL gives someone the warm fuzzies; this one gives nearly everybody the heebie-jeebies.
Hawerchuk’s banner also represents the furthest logical extreme of one of the most irrational and inhumane tenets of hockey metaphysics, the Relocated Team Doctrine. The Relocated Team Doctrine states, essentially, that a team can be moved from one city to another and still be considered the same team. It is the principle that allows us to suggest that the Calgary Flames are the self-same entity as the once Atlanta Flames, that the Carolina Hurricanes are the Hartford Whalers, and- if you really want to push it- that the Dallas Stars are the long-removed incarnation of the Oakland Seals. The Relocated Team Doctrine allows the Phoenix Coyotes to claim that they are the first-edition Winnipeg Jets, and therefore that all the history of those Jets is also theirs, including Hawerchuk, although he never so much as skated one regulation moment in either their city, their building, or their sweater.
Now, I would like to suggest that the Relocated Team Doctrine is, and I mean this in the kindest possible way, bullshit. Not only because it allows for depressing absurdities like the Hawerchuk banner, but because it is fundamentally illogical, and if allowed to stand actually undermines the already-fragile ontological foundations of team identity, and moreover perpetuates an unnecessary abuse of fan feelings in the one area of hockey where fan feeling has the most legitimate claim to authority. Or, to simplify, because it’s A) wrong and B) painful.
Now, you may point out that the Relocated Team Doctrine is an official policy of the NHL, which is true: according the League, the franchise in Phoenix is the same one that was initially in Winnipeg. However, we all know that just because the NHL says something does not make it so, and in fact the NHL says a great many things that are not so when it suits their interests, and the Relocated Team Doctrine most definitely serves their interests. The Relocated Team Doctrine is what allows them to switch the product to different markets without admitting a complete failure. Surely, a team that has to move is a black eye for the League, but a team that simply ceased to exist would be two black eyes, a broken nose, and a kick in the nuts. Because of this Doctrine, the NHL can say that it has not ‘lost’ a franchise since WWII killed off the New York Americans. Every other failed team has been bought or merged elsewhere, and every time that happens, the NHL manages to avoid taking direct responsibility for an unjustified or unstable overexpansion.
More serious than the NHL’s official position, though, is the aggregate opinion of most of the historians and chroniclers of the game, the vast majority of whom support the Relocated Team Doctrine on genealogical grounds. In this version, a team is comprised of things and what is most important in defining a franchise’s ‘franchiseness’ is those things, or the at least the series of causal relationships that link a sequence of things through history. If the stuff of Winnipeg is put in Phoenix, than the team has moved to Phoenix.
The problem with this historicist justification for the Relocated Team Doctrine is that it conflicts with an even more deeply- and widely-held tenet of hockey metaphysics, the Stationary Team Doctrine. The Stationary Team Doctrine is the sports solution to the problem of the fundamental instability of teams. Sports franchises exist in a state of constant flux, constantly drafting new players and retiring old ones and trading them in the middle, hiring and firing coaches and GMs, redesigning jerseys, building new arenas. A fan in the course of a lifetime will see their team reconstituted a dozen times in a dozen different ways. They’ll cheer for easily a hundred different players in four different sweaters in two different buildings. And every single fan, at some point, is going to be faced with an incarnation of the team that seems so depressingly, perversely, miserably contrary to everything the franchise once was that they will start to ask themselves, “Is this even my team anymore? Is this even the same thing I grew up with/fell in love with/bandwagoned onto when they were good?”
The solution to this is (like the Japanese answer to the paradox of Theseus’ ship) to assert that the essence of the team is in its form and its function rather than its substance. A team is not what it is but what it does, defined not by the specific people or buildings or shirts that it uses but by its position in a system of social relations. And in the case of a team, that position is inextricably and fundamentally linked to a place. There is a reason that we flock so readily to terms like ‘Leafs Nation’, or in my case ‘Habistan’, to describe the culture of a fanbase that forms in a place around a team. Of all other human phenomena, team loyalty most closely resembles nationalism writ small. For fans, the team is an expression of a bond that they feel with each other and with their shared home. That bond is what makes the team itself no matter how frequently or dramatically its component parts change.
The Relocated Team Doctrine, however, contends that it is not the social relations that matter but simply the physical stuff of the team- if you send all the players, bags, and money to another place, you’ve sent the team there. This is absurd on its face. Players, bags, and money skitter around the continent like gerbils in a Habitrail without carrying anything of their erstwhile team with them. The Leafs are not mystically 1/10th Canadiens just because they have a few players who were drafted as Canadiens, and nobody would ever suggest such a thing. Yet just because Winnipeg once sent a bunch of players to Phoenix, the Coyotes now get to claim the legacy of the old Jets as their own in perpetuity.
The legacy does not belong to the players. It does not belong to the League. It does not belong to any ownership group. It belongs, like any history, to the place it happened. It belongs, like any memory, to the people it happened to. Saying that the Jets moved to Phoenix is pleasant lie, like telling the children that Mittens went to live on a farm in the next county. The truth is that the Jets died and the NHL used the corpse as fertilizer for an ambitious hockey-terraforming project, which eventually produced an entirely different team, and the two are no more equivalent to each other than a moose is equivalent to a tumbleweed. The Coyotes have no claim to the identity of the old Jets save a technicality. The current team in Winnipeg has slipped so readily and easily into the social role of the old Jets, has melded so well with the memories and attachments of the fans, that it has a far better claim to being the same team, the authentic heir to the team that was lost.
The Coyotes owe Winnipeg a banner, I think.
*This post originally said that Hawerchuk played junior in Montreal; in fact, he played for Cornwall, which was then a part of the Q. Apologies for the error.