Thursday, December 4, 2008

In Enemy Territory

As I mentioned in the previous post, I now reside in the state of Michigan. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Michigan is an incredibly multifaceted state; to put it simply, most of it isn't at all like Detroit and it's surrounding areas.

Living on the opposite side of the state in Grand Rapids, I don't feel the need to carry a loaded handgun in my glove compartment. (Sure, there are some areas in town in which I would prefer not to break down at 3 a.m., but every city of a certain size has rough areas.) While I may be just a few minutes from 8 Mile Road, the atmosphere is far from "8 Mile." In fact, Grand Rapids is a growing, vibrant community that unfortunately is a very well-kept secret outside the immediate area. Growing up in the Pittsburgh/Tri-State region, I had no clue that Grand Rapids was the second-largest city in Michigan, outpacing more exposed places like Lansing, Flint, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and Saginaw.

Just a half-hour drive from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids is also nearly equidistant from Chicago and Detroit. Thus, one might expect some crossover between the fan bases of Windy City and Motor City professional sports teams. As I've discovered in the past two years, that assumption is not on target. Make no mistake, GR is a Tigers, Lions (sadly), Pistons and, especially, Red Wings town.

Probably the most prominant reason for the Winged Wheel affection is the Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit's American Hockey League affiliate that plays at the new-ish Van Andel Arena in a popular district downtown. Considering the depth of the Wings' organization, it's not surprising that the Griffins have consistently been near the top of the AHL's standing for the better part of a decade. Winning, as always, cures most everything in pro sports, but beyond that, key contributors to Detroit's Cup run last year spent (or are still spending) considerable time in GR. Jiri Hudler, Darren Helm and Valtteri Filppula, the current understudies to Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, et al, are just some of the Wings that have passed through West Michigan on their respective ways to the Show. The sign that hangs from Van Andel's upper deck says it best: "Hockeytown West."

Another factor that boosts the Red Wings fervor on Michigan's Golden Coast (I swear I'm not making that up) is the nature of the Lions, Tigers and Pistons fanbases in the region. While the Tigers' recent success, 2007 notwithstanding, has helped them win back previously-dormant baseball lovers, there is still a noticable faction of Chicago hardball fans around, enough that the local newspaper renders both "Cubs" and "White Sox" in boldface when listing the standings. As far as the Lions go, I shouldn't have to tell you that morale is low. And the Pistons are overshadowed on the left half of the state by the traditionally outstanding Michigan State Spartans men's basketball program.

That leaves the Wings without any competition or hindrance on the route to dominance of hearts and minds. Recently, local columnist Bill Simonson suggested Grand Rapids could be in a good position take in the Wings if Detroit suffers some kind of economic apocalypse, which isn't outside the realm of credulity in this fiscal climate. It says something that when I read Simonson's proclamation, I didn't laugh or shrug it off.

Not that it really matters to an embedded Penguins fan. I doubt I'd get any less grief about my Pens paraphrenalia if I actually lived within a short distance of Joe Louis Arena. Speaking of the Joe, I was forturnate enough to acquire free tickets to a Red Wings game there on the evening of November 11. You remember what happened, don't you?

Could it be that the whole reason I wrote this post was to relive the moment?

Probably. Pens at Canes tonight from Raleigh, N.C.


Brian said...

Good to see you are back and working. When we all saw the blog was back and running, we worried and presumed you were on hard times or working for the Zooperstars.

Matt Gajtka said...

Never the Zooperstars.