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.

Comments (21)

  1. If you want to get really technical, the Stars aren’t the long-lost remnant of the Oakland Seals; the San Jose Sharks are.

    It works based on both doctrines, too. I’m on my phone right now, so typing sucks, so look up the ’91 expansion draft. Definitely a unique situation.

    • “If you want to get really technical, the Stars aren’t the long-lost remnant of the Oakland Seals; the San Jose Sharks are.”

      That’s effectively what they are, but really, the Seals’ franchise was merged with the North Stars and the Sharks were an expansion team. Because of the way the expansion was handled, it was basically the same as if the franchises were “de-merged” but the Sharks are considered a new, separate franchise.

      Which kind of underscores how absurd the whole thing is.

  2. This is a fantastic read. Great blog.

  3. If a family member moves to a new house, even halfway across the country, are they no longer family?

    I am a native of Western New England. I grew up rooting for the Whalers. I now root for the Hurricanes. It’s funny, because when I tune in to NHL radio, that’s still Chuck Kaiton behind the microphone. That’s still Ron Francis and Glen Wesley running the show (now from the front office, though that doesn’t change it). Hell, even Wally Tatomir and Skip Cunningham are still there! It’s a different city and a different uniform, sure, but it is the same team. I am a Hurricanes fan and I always will be a Hurricanes fan–and if Howard Baldwin gets his way and brings the Whalers back to Hartford (which I believe he will and I hope he does!) I will still be a Hurricanes fan first.

    A team is like a family–even when they grow up and move away, they’re still yours. Besides, what was I going to do, root for the Bruins or Habs? No real Whalers fan would ever do that.

    • If the National Gallery of Canada moves to New York, is it still the National Gallery of Canada? Same art, same directors, so clearly it must be. And yet that would be illogical.

      The only thing that stays consistent over the course of a teams history is the fans. Owners change, managerial staff changes, players change. The fan base doesn’t really. I have been a Habs fan since I was a small child (I’m now almost 26), my father (now 66) has been a Habs fan since he was a small child, and his father (who died in 1985 in his 70s) was a Habs fan since he was a small child. If I have kids they will be raised as Habs fan – or kicked out on the street! ;)

      So the only thing that is constant about a team is the fan base…but if the Montreal Canadiens moved to, say, Dubai, do you think any Habs fans would cheer for the new team? If Toronto had moved to Las Vegas, would Leafs fan cheer for them there?

      The answer is no. When a team moves it may try to retain the old franchise history, but it has no connection. There is no difference between the Phoenix Coyotes claiming Hawerchuk as one of their own and the Ottawa Senators claiming the Stanley Cup championships from 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1920, 1921, 1923, and 1927. In fact, the claim by Ottawa is more legitimate, because those trophies were won by Ottawa teams, whereas Hawerchuk was not a Phoenix player.

  4. Fantastic article!

    I submit the case of Teemu Selanne, I think everyone saw the reception that the Finnish Flash got in his first game back in Winnipeg. Do you really think that Phoenix (aka Jets 1.0) stir any sort of nostalgia for Selanne? I doubt it.

    It’s also worth noting that not all relocated franchises honor the old teams. The Avalanche returned all the retired Nordiques numbers back into circulation when they landed in Denver. If the Nordiques return to Quebec, I’m sure those same numbers will be hoisted back into the rafters.

  5. Couldn’t agree more; I wish I could have been so eloquent back in July:

    “In general, the decrying of “What will happen to the Thrashers?” and “Are they doomed to disappear?” is a recent phenomenon. People don’t seem to be too concerned about where the California Golden Seals went, or the Cleveland Barons, or the Colorado Rockies (though they don’t mind sometimes wearing the jerseys). Each of those teams have their own history, separated from the teams they became, mentioned only in passing as “Oh yeah, that’s what came before the so-and-so’s”. You don’t see a lot of Devils fans feeling nostalgic when I mention Wilf Paiment or Rob Ramage, but I bet there are some people in Colorado that do. In my opinion, Atlanta Thrashers history should be held with the people who cared the most for the team; on the Jets end, they should be remembered as where the next chapter in Jets history came from. I don’t really see the point in carrying over player records. Do we really think Winnipeggers are going to identify strongly with the way Ilya Kovalchuk played, or remember fondly when he did this/that/the other thing? Once again, some of these things are best left in the hands of the fan base that cared the most for the team, not some wooden homage from a fan base that might be respectful but not really sentimental for a team that played 1,500 miles away.”

  6. well written. I touched on this too a couple of years ago, albeit no where near as in depth or factually researched: http://bit.ly/zoH5oq

  7. It’s not fundamentally illogical. MLB does the same thing with it’s franchises, though it’s less obvious because they do not have franchises moving every few seasons like the NHL does. I suspect other pro sports leagues do the same thing.

    Here’s why it makes sense: These relocated teams *are* the same teams except for the name & location. The same players move with the team, often much of the staff, equipment etc. too. The Winnipeg Jets 2.0 are last years Atlanta Thrashers, they have absolutely nothing to do with the Teemu era Jets except that they decided to take on the old name due to public support for that name (though they changed everything else).

    Regarding the Ducky banner: He never played in Phoenix and the team does not have to display that banner, but I suspect they did so to try & instill some historic franchise pride and fan interest. Good for them to take advantage of anything they can to try and help the team survive. MLB’s Washington Nationals considered the same thing, displaying retired MTL Expos numbers, but I believe they decided against it. Maybe MLB teams don’t have to try as hard to garner fan support?

    I suspect the only reason this conversation is taking place is due to the NHL being so desperate for locations that they go back to the failed location well so many times, which makes the franchise histories appear a bit ridiculous. Winnipeg, Minnesota, and Atlanta have had 2 NHL teams each, and KC and Quebec City are being seriously considered for a second try with the NHL.

  8. So wait, Your complaining a jersey hangs in Phx..Where players from the Jets actually played and play?

    If i recall, no Jets player of use actually played with the Thrashers.

    This argument is dumb. If you cared so much about history, then you should of bitten the bullet, waited for Phoenix to eventually fail a year or two later, and get your team back. Not go and take a team from Atlanta, and try to warp history to say that this is your historic team. No, Your Historic team is in Phoenix.

    Atlanta was an unfortunate victim of a failed Commish, and back-door dealings that went against every thing the NHL says they dont do.

    Atlanta was on the market for 3 Months of “must find a new owner”. Where-as Phoenix has been in -need- of an owner for 3 years. And yet the 3 month team disappeared.

    Be happy you have a hockey team again, and embrace the history that Atlanta fans grew to love. And build on that history, and not go to your History of losing a team for failed fan support and mediocre results. Because newsflash, You are going to get the exact same thing this time around.

  9. I’m of two minds about this. I like the Oakland A’s. I love that they still have an elephant as their mascot because of a 110-year-old dispute with John McGraw. I love that they have the Philadelphia A’s World Series titles in the stands along with the Oakland ones.

    You should be able to retain the old team’s history. It helps that MLB has had precisely one relocation since 1972; the NHL has had nine. (The NBA has also had 9, but somehow pulling basketball out of Buffalo, Vancouver, Seattle, Kansas City and Charlotte isn’t the same as dragging it out of Winnipeg, Quebec, Hartford and Minneapolis.)

  10. As historian I have to object to the idea that anyone drops their history when they move. It just doesn’t happen. Migrants throughout human history have very problematic relationships to their past, but they don’t simply drop it and become either an uncomplicated representative of their adopted community or something somehow completely new. That history is still there and it still affects the migrants’ identity.

    Many new Jets who are playing in Winnipeg this year were last season’s Thrashers. Moving doesn’t change that and it does a disservice to those who had relationships with those players in Atlanta to imagine that they have somehow become something else that has nothing to do with their time there. Change and continuity are not opposites they way you have presented them here.

  11. I disagree completely with the logic you claim to have used. The logic is in fact non-existent. Look, I am “Larry_in_PHX,” but I was born and raised in St. Louis. I am the same person as the one that grew up in St Louis. Just because I am now in PHX doesn’t mean that I never grew up in St Louis. I am in fact “Larry_in_PHX” from St. Louis… Just like my Phoenix Coyotes who are from Winnepeg are the same team.

    By the way we are just as proud of our banners with the names Hull, Hawerchuk, and Steen, as we are of the. Numminen and Tkachuk banners. Sorry if that confuses you.

  12. Thank you! This is the only “real” way to look at this issue!

    I work in business, so I know that legal distinctions make a difference in the business world. But in the world of sports, players and fans, it is the height of absurdity to hang a Hawerchuck banner in Phoenix.

    And I can tell you that, in the only sense that really matters, fans in Winnipeg are already hard at work compiling their “official” Winnipeg Jets historical statistics.

    The real world sails on like a ship on the sea.

  13. Most of you who are in favor of the traditional Relocated Team Doctrine are arguing that a team is analogous to a person. American law re: corporate personhood notwithstanding, I fundamentally don’t think this is accurate. A team cannot self-conceptualize a sense of identity the way a person can, it’s identity is entirely created for it and given to it by actual people. There is no way that the Jets as an institution will ‘remember’ its past as the Thrashers- the only reason that memory has any weight is because people like you give it value, and why is your valuation of that memory so much more important than the fans who feel the opposite way? What logic makes it more right?.

    It’s true that some players who are on the Jets remember being Thrashers, but as I said in the article, that doesn’t make the Jets the Thrashers any more than the fact that Chris Higgins remembering having been a Hab makes the Canucks the Canadiens.

    • If it’s “nationalism writ small” then teams have identities that are both consciously and unconsciously created and manipulated. It’s a social institution that does, in fact, use, build, manipulate, and interpret its own past. It’s not a person but it’s not a corporation, either. A team can and does purposely and self-consciously develop not only its identity but its relationships with its community.

      This isn’t an either-or scenario. They aren’t either Jets or Thrashers. They are both. At some times the Thrasher identity is more relevant than the Jet identity. More often it will be the other way around. Many times they will be in conflict. What you are arguing is that Thrasherness ceases altogether to be meaningful. It doesn’t, as much as some Jets fans and media might like their identity to be uncomplicated. But certainly until the new Jets build up their own past, the Thrashers constitute their past. And for that matter, that past is meaningful until people stop making it so. And that will take a very long time.

      I feel that you are setting up a false dichotomy that does a disservice to the reality of fans’ understanding of their relationship to their teams. People claim histories and pasts that they have no direct experiential claim to all the time, as a Habs fan ought to be aware, The fact that those things happened outside of a fan’s personal view doesn’t make that relationship any less “real” and meaningful.

      • See, I’m not sure to whom that Thrasherness is so very meaningful. For most Thrashers fans, the team in Winnipeg isn’t really theirs anymore. They won’t pass on that fanaticism to their kids, it won’t grow or change or develop. Their team is dead, and the fact that the parts of it are playing in Winnipeg doesn’t change that. Conversely, the Winnipeg fans who have memories of the old Jets clearly feel like the new Jets revivify the bond they had with the lost team, and I would argue that it’s perfectly legitimate for them to honor the history and legends of the old Jets- players and games and records that happened there, that many of them remember personally- through the new version. The Relocated Team Doctrine is a technicality that people commit to because it feels like it’s the ‘right’ answer, not because there’s a great wealth of feeling behind it.

        • I’m not saying it’s illegitimate for Jets fans to honor and remember those that played in their town. I’m saying that in reality, people choose *both* of these things–both the old and the new–not one or the other.

          I would also gently argue that there are more Atlanta Thrasher fans–and southern US hockey fans in general–who do regard the “new” Jets as the “old” Thrashers than you are willing to credit here. The difference is that there will be no new Thrashers fans. It’s nonetheless very real and your “Stationary Team Doctrine” essentially denies that those people and all of their memories and connections exist or matter. It’s kind of a “F*** Atlanta” Doctrine. I’d also say that it’s not the physical stuff that those fans cling to but their social connections to the team.

          While those connections fade over time, that time has not yet passed and if the Coyotes are any example to go by, that may not happen for quite some time.

  14. The almost perfect way to resolve all of this is allow the Coyotes to Quebec.
    Hawerchuk/Steen/Hull banners are transferred to Winnipeg
    The newly reincarnated Nordique (like they are going to be called anything else?!) can reinstitute their retired numbers for Tremblay, Tardif, Goulet and Stastny

    When Shane Doan’s number is to be retired (as he has earned that eventual honour IMHO), it will have to hang in Quebec. But at least he would have played a season or two there.

    Soon the 9, 10 and 25 should hang in the Winnipeg rafters, but Winnipeg has to do its part. Winnipeg should retire the #37 of Dan Snyder.

  15. I just get it now, you are referring to CAT named Mittens. I thought it was a Miettenen reference. Great piece.

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