I really didn’t expect to. After all, the NHL’s return to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence had been unofficially official for a couple of weeks before True North chairman Mark Chipman took the podium at the MTS Centre on Tuesday. Parties had already been thrown, there was no surprise left. Yet there I sat, wearing a jersey older than I am, drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon – for the matching colours, not for the overstated hipster credentials – and weeping like I was watching the last five minutes of It’s a Wonderful Life.
As a guy who left Manitoba almost two years ago and still places the NHL well behind the NFL, NBA, and yes, even Major League Baseball, I couldn’t believe how enraptured and emotional I was becoming.
Maybe going through my adolescence without a major-league sports franchise to call my own made me forget how great it is see your own city’s name on a jersey, in a video game, on Hockey Night in Canada. But with one short announcement, all the memories came flooding back.
I felt like a kid again.I felt like the kid that actually loved the NHL. It may have been 15 years ago, but there was a time when I woke up every morning at 6:30 in the freaking morning to watch Michael Landsberg on TSN Sportsdesk with my dad before he left for work. While on vacation in Tampa Bay at the ripe age of six, I regaled some old retirees in the resort pool about the Lightning’s recent acquisition of goalie Daren Puppa. (In hindsight, I doubt they knew who the one-year-old Lightning were and were probably enjoying listening to a 6-year-old with serious speech impediments repeatedly say “POO-pah”.) I loved Teppo Numminen for making it cool to be a defenceman. I loved Tie Domi the Jet, hated Tie Domi the Leaf. I loved the Poulin’s Pest Control ads that played on the Winnipeg Arena’s out-of-date scoreboard. And of course, I worshipped at the altar of Selanne.
And as it became abundantly clear that only a miracle would keep the Jets in Winnipeg, I valiantly sacrificed my weekly allowance (I might have been up to two bucks a week by then) to the Save the Jets campaign.
Despite my heroic efforts, I still had the misfortune of watching my favorite broadcaster bitterly tell me my team was gone.
After the Jets snuck into the playoffs and stole a couple of games from the Detroit Red Wings, my dad got tickets to Game 6 and we went to say goodbye. Barring two straight massive upsets, it would be the final time the city would cheer on the Jets.
Of course, there was no upset. Somewhere in that sea of white-clad fans, we cheered as the team took its final bow, and my NHL fandom met an early death on April 28, 1996.
Despite having watched them hammer the final nail in the Jets coffin, I clung to a strange, Stockholm Syndrom-esque admiration for Detroit for the next couple of seasons thanks to their epic postseason battles with the Avalanche. Really, though, between the Flyers and Devils grinding the game to a halt, Gary Bettman’s ill-conceived attempts to expand the league, and the loss of the Jets, I was finished with the National Hockey League.
Thankfully, there are hardier hockey fans that I in the city that adopted new teams, prayed for the Jets’ return, or even latched on to the Manitoba Moose, our minor-league consolation prize. Now, there are a couple of ways to characterize the city’s 15-year relationship with that team, and neither are particularly flattering.
- Winnipeg was the shy guy in class who somehow takes the valedictorian to the prom, buys a cheap engagement ring on long-term credit, then gets spurned at the altar when she realizes he can’t afford a mortgage. In his despair, he meets a well-intentioned, if kind of homely, girl at a dive bar and throws himself headlong into the relationship for a year just to feel whole again. He quickly comes to realize that she isn’t the girl he wanted but thinks so low of himself that he just sticks it out, despite waking up every morning resenting her for 13 years.
- OR, and maybe this analogy is a bit more fair to the Moose, the Jets were The World’s Greatest Dad. Cool guy, probably a fire fighter, plays catch with you after work, lets you have a beer once in a while… But he’s killed in a horrible accident at work. Mom remarries. Nice guy but kind of a dork. Tries to play catch but throws like a girl. Offers to watch TV but then puts on Antiques Roadshow. He even moves you and mom into a shiny new house, but it’s just never enough. He’ll never be Dad. (And I suppose, in this extended analogy, the Atlanta Thrashers are Dad’s long-lost younger brother who showed up out of nowhere, kicked lame-o step-dad to the curb and sent him to Newfoundland.)
Ultimately, the Moose could never fill the void that the Jets left, because it wasn’t just about watching competitive hockey – and the Moose were actually fairly competitive – it was about feeling validated as a real major league city. For all the things Winnipeg is known for – the cold, the mosquitoes, the crime, the child-kicking mayor, this guy – it’s really just a solid mid-level city with a serious inferiority complex.
Winnipeggers can be ruthlessly hard on our town, listing off its myriad flaws at the drop of a hat like we’re trying to point out a bad zit before someone else does. Without any real presence on the professional sports stage – our highest-level franchise for 15 years has been the Blue Bombers, and they’re the only active CFL team to not win a Grey Cup in that span – we’ve had no claim to major-league status.
But at 11:15 a.m. CDT on Tuesday, Mark Chipman, True North Sports & Entertainment, and David Thomson not only made me a hockey fan again, but they gave ‘Peggers a reason to be proud of their city.
With a top-tier hockey team, an architecturally dazzling new museum (soon), a surprisingly-spiffy new airport (sooner), and real, honest-to-goodness downtown residential development, can we please abolish the Weakerthan’s “One Great City!”for good? We don’t need all the self-loathing anymore. (And I’m just really tired of that song.)
Even your typically apathetic and oblivious Torontonians seemed to know that something tremendous had happened. I proudly wore my jersey for the next 12 hours and received endless thumbs-ups from drivers, nods from passersby – virtually a full-body hug by Toronto standards – and even actual congratulations as if I had personally accomplished something.
The one thing I really wanted to hear, though, the one thing I missed most by not being at Portage & Main, was provided by a friendly middle-aged guy counting yogurt inventory at the dairy aisle of my grocery store. We had a short talk about the big announcement, he asked a few questions – “Do they have an adequate arena?” (yes), “Will they sell out?” (yes), “Will they sell out in 2014 if they haven’t been winning?” (umm…) – and we parted ways.
A few minutes later I was at the checkout and ready to leave when he walked past, put out one fist and recited a quick chant.
“Go Jets Go.”