We Are All Houston: Coming Together To Say Goodbye To The Aeros
Posted by Nathan Wells on Monday, April 29, 2013
Maybe it's me but I feel like there have been a lot of anniversaries lately.
It makes sense. With seasons ending and championships being raised, April brings out the best. Heck a few articles back I wrote about last Monday being the 10 year anniversary of Andrew Brunette scoring the biggest goal in Wild history.
But there are also anniversaries we'd like to forget. The years in which things don't go our way, where April means getting out the golf clubs or even another go at shoveling snow (thanks Mother Nature!) for a fifth straight month. Those come up in sports more than we'd like to admit, however, they also make the good times that much better by balancing things out.
The past week saw the fifth anniversary of Minnesota's last playoff goal. Few constants have remained over that run. Jobs, life experiences and enough hockey has come and gone to the point where only three players from that team will suit up in 2013's forest green. Pierre-Marc Bouchard went through an entire long-term contract. Mikko Koivu began the drought as the future behind 3 all-star forwards and ended this past week, on that saw the best and worst of the team, with the Wild defeating Colorado 3-1 to make the postseason as an eight seed. Dessert is always good, but it tastes better after finishing dinner.
In some way it is fitting events happen close to each other. Two weeks ago began with the 20th anniversary of Minnesota's first NHL team packing its bags to head to Dallas and ended with a team from the Lone Star State moving back to the Upper Midwest. The circle of hockey justice is complete, right?
Hockey has a bold and rich history, something that fans grasp maybe more than any other sport. From its origins to the frozen ponds of Canada to the Original Six, the longer a team or place has been around the better. Not everyone thinks that. Still, there are plenty of hockey fans who look down on new teams and areas as the game continues to grow.
It would be easy to do the same with Houston following the news that the Aeros will relocate to Des Moines and be rebranded as the Iowa Wild. A team from the Sun Belt moving to a more "hockey-centric" part of the country closer to Canada is good in the eyes of some.
But not mine.
Houston didn't fail as a hockey market. The Aeros have been in the top-10 in the AHL attendance despite being the affiliate of a team 1200 miles away. The team has had their share of success (most notably a Calder Cup in 2003 for winning the league and the run in 2011 that got then-head coach Mike Yeo his present job), but Houston has supported their team through the thick and thin. They aren't bandwagoners. They aren't transplants showing up to watch another team, as is the case in other southern markets.
They aren't even new. Although the 10th-largest market has experienced growth similar to other Sun Belt areas, Houston isn't a recent boom city with transplants and has a diverse economy. The Aeros name goes back to the WHA days of the 70s when Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, suited up for Avco Cup winning teams. The current team goes back to the IHL in 1994 when that league tried to compete with the AHL. When they failed, the Aeros were one of a handful of teams to join their former competitor.
It's both funny and sad whether you like southern hockey or not that a name whose current iteration outlives their parent club in the "State of Hockey" is being retired.
With its size and status as a sports town, Houston should be on the list for a NHL team. There is even a built-in rivalry with (ironically) Dallas that would be better than anything the Wild have had in their history. Instead, hockey is likely on its last legs for Houstonians unless as the Third Intermission suggests the Toyota Center buys a team or someone builds a new facility.
That's too bad. Hockey should be embraced rather than priced out. In Minnesota's case, the organization will take a 60% cut to play in Des Moines while the Toyota Center wanted to raise prices from $24K a game to $42K. Minnesota may have done more to keep their affiliate in the Bayou City. Regardless, this was a decision that has everything to do with money and nothing to do with support.
If anything, the Aeros fans should be commended for showing up 13,000 strong for the final regular season game in team history after the relocation news broke. That isn't the path an apathetic fanbase would take. It's easy to walk away and stay upset at Les Alexander for the lack of wiggle room with lease negotiations but instead fans from the Sun Belt acted similar to fans from Minnesota when it came to saying goodbye.
Goodbye. That day is coming and it's sad to think that last night's 3-2 loss to Grand Rapids might have been the final home game in franchise history. The Aeros are going to have to win 2 on the road against the Griffins to have another chance to play in front of the Houston fans or else the next home game will be in Des Moines.
Either way, that will eventually happen. Even miracle playoff runs end when the games do.
There are pros with Minnesota having their AHL team within 4 hours of St. Paul. Iowa is closer to Houston, which gives Wild fans from Minnesota a chance to travel and see the future. It is one of the closest places to have the team. In a perfect world, the AHL Wild would be in the "State of Hockey," however every major city outside of Rochester did not have a college team who draws well, including the Gophers selling out the 10,000 seat Mariucci Arena in the Twin Cities. Placing them in Des Moines, a market that is larger than any in outstate Minnesota, combines the best part of being nearby without having to worry about the team being another Minnesota Moose.
At the same time, having the AHL team rebranded as the Iowa Wild gives Minnesota a chance to expand their footprint. The Wild are a young team without much history and having their brand of hockey regularly shown to their southern neighbors is helpful. The Hawkeye State is an interesting part of the country where multiple teams converge and have their games shown. Having some connection with the Wild can turn some Iowa hockey fans into Wild fans, cheap name or not.
(Whether or not you like the "Wild" nickname, what is wild about Iowa?)
Minnesota does lose out on being next to a major airport or two that can send players to any NHL destination (Tyler Cuma notwithstanding). Des Moines is close to St. Paul, but not close enough where it offsets the four hour drive up I-35. Hockey's popularity in Minnesota is both a blessing and a curse. Minnesotans love hockey yet there is plenty of hockey in the state, teams which have been around for decades, where fans can watch without going down to Iowa.
For better or worse it isn't all about the Wild in Minnesota.
I don't know if it will work.The city previously had the AHL as the affiliate of Dallas and then Anaheim before ownership issues doomed the team. That isn't to say the AHL succeed again - the USHL Buccaneers have been successful in the city and pose competition to the Wild - but it isn't a boost of confidence.
Still, while there are cons and risks, the opportunity to expand the footprint and try to make the Upper Midwest a little more about the Wild makes the move a good gamble. That is especially true given that Craig Leipold is likely saving money even if less fans show up. If Houston is no longer an option, then moving to Des Moines and rebranding the AHL team as the Iowa Wild is about as good of a move as they can do. However, that doesn't make it the right move.
Although Houston having issues with renewing their lease has meant the writing was on the wall, the news that the Aeros will be no more is still disappointing. I'm not surprised that the AHL is returning to Iowa. That was a dirty little secret (Dan even alluded to it last month) which gave us enough time to make our peace with the decision.
Of course, we also aren't Houston natives because if we were, no amount of time would be enough to make peace. There is no statute of limitations when relocation is in play. It is 20 years later and I'm still angry at Norm Green for tearing away a piece of my childhood.
I wouldn't expect Aeros fans to "get over it" any less than I did. As the anniversaries pass, the feelings of losing a team remain fresh. The bad anniversaries come up just as much as the good ones. We'll celebrate Minnesota returning to the playoffs this week and it will be in the shadows of a Norris Division rivalry between the Blackhawks and the old Minnesota NHL team.
As much as I'd like to forget the North Stars and enjoy the Wild, that doesn't work. It's a good reminder for anyone who has lost a team and to the Aeros fans out there, we feel your pain.
We are all Houston.