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It is no accident that the NHL chose Buffalo to be the site of the league's first outdoor game in the U.S. The Sabres will host the Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium, 10 miles from downtown, on New Year's Day. The 41,000 tickets made available to the public sold out in a half hour.
"There's a trauma here, with so many people's kids having moved out of town," Quinn says. "Sports for a Buffalo person is an outlet to fight back against that trauma. It's almost like a cause. For a lot of people Sabres tickets are what they do instead of taking vacations. I ask people, 'How can you afford it?' They say, 'Well, we go to 40 games instead of going to Florida, and we don't take a summer vacation.'"
"In some ways," G.M. Darcy Regier says, "this is like small-town Canada."
Exactly. And Buffalo is a little too much small-town Canada to qualify as Hockeytown U.S.A. Only 8% of the Sabres' season-ticket base is Canadian, but on any given night a fifth of the Buffalo crowd has braved Peace Bridge customs' checks and come from eh-droppin' southern Ontario. Filling the building with imports is like setting a wind-aided world record.
In the pregame darkness of the sold-out arena, a child bathed in a spotlight's amber glow skates to center ice and plants a Minnesota Wild flag. This simple gesture guarantees the Wild a nightly goose-bump moment—one that's a nod to the essence of hockey in the city that has become the game's epicenter. Unlike in, say, Philadelphia, hockey in St. Paul grows from the bottom up. When the child plants that Wild flag at the Xcel Energy Center, says Les Larson, director of development for college hockey's Hobey Baker Award, "it's about hockey moms driving to the rink, the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich a kid grabs before going to play, about the pickup games guys played. It strikes a chord."
The Wild has sold every ticket to every game since it entered the NHL as an expansion team in 2000, but it has never tried to bigfoot hockey in a city that was home to America's iconic coach, Herb Brooks; the No. 2 U.S.--born career NHL scorer, South St. Paul's Phil Housley; the only cartoonist to draw a Zamboni-driving bird, Charles Schulz; and the leading state high school tournament in the nation. This is the unwritten hockey schedule in the Twin Cities: boys' hockey Tuesday night, girls' hockey Thursday night, the University of Minnesota Friday and Saturday nights. Boys and girls also play on Saturday afternoon. It is no coincidence that the Wild often plays on Wednesday and Sunday. This is a franchise respectful of the game, aware of its niche and almost obsequious in its treatment of fans. Minnesota high school hockey jerseys ring the outer concourse of the arena. Pictures of season-ticket holders appear on game tickets. The Wild even employs a full-time hockey curator to protect and promote the state's hockey heritage.
"This reminds me of Calgary when I first went there," says G.M. Doug Risebrough, who played in the NHL for 13 years and was traded from Montreal to Calgary in 1982. "They'd just gotten the franchise [in '80], and there was the same sort of enthusiasm, a feeling of, let's grow up together."
The lingering question: How can any Hockeytown aspirant have lost an NHL team, as the Twin Cities, the 15th largest T.V. market in the U.S., did when owner Norm Green took the North Stars to Dallas in 1993? Those North Stars did, as Clarke suggested, have attendance problems—but those were precipitated in large part by an ownership that alienated the fan base. The team played its games in Bloomington, and Green complained bitterly about not being able to play in downtown Minneapolis at the Target Center. Fans were also put off by a high profile sexual harassment suit that Green ended up settling out of court. Attendance shriveled to just 7,838 per game in 1990--91 and Green called it quits two seasons later, moving to the virgin territory of the southwest.
Now Minnesotans are buying what the Wild is selling. Season tickets are capped at 16,500; the waiting list is 7,500. There are 32 stations on the team's radio network, extending through the Dakotas, into Iowa and Wisconsin and even Thunder Bay, Ont. NHL hockey again appears entrenched, despite the many other options available.