Setting Out on the Journey
The beginning, not for the newly born Jets team, but for me, came at literally the last possible second late last week. Here’s the scene:
She: “It’s pretty far to go for a hockey game.”
Me: “Yeah, I know. And it’s not exactly easy to get to Winnipeg. At least not from LA.”
She: “Right, but you know, you said you’d go if they offered a credential. And think about it—what will you remember a decade from now, the hassle getting there, or the fact that you were there to see it with your own eyes?”
That’s the kind of woman you ought to have the good sense to marry, and I did, which is why I found myself buying a ticket Friday that would put me on an airplane Saturday morning. I’m Canadian, but this would be my first trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba being the only province I’ve never visited before.
The reason I’m sure you get: the team had approved a media pass so that I could report on their renaissance, or rescue, from the Atlanta Thrashers to the Winnipeg Jets. I would make my way through Chicago and onto one of those tiny commuter planes that fly into the lesser cities to witness one of the most significant events in Canadian culture in a long time. The Jets versus the Habs.
Why go? Because this was not about a hockey game. It’s about Canada winning back a team that was taken from it by people shortsighted enough to think that they can sell the game where few want it. And I know that the Olympics have come and gone, leaving behind a game Canadians will remember for generations, and I, too remember that “other” game, the one that caused all the uproar and burned cars this past spring. But those things happen in their regular cycles. Not the car burning, but the Finals, and the Games.
It’s once in a generation that we get back a team, and though I now live in the States (you know that, right—I mean, you’ve been reading all these columns on the Kings and Ducks that I’ve done over the past six seasons), I’m Canadian still as well, and all summer I’ve been wondering: What will it be like in the moments following the announcer at the MTS Centre saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Winnipeg Jets!”
I mean, they’ve got to say that, I guess. They always announce the team in the arenas I find myself in. I’m expecting when they do, that it will be like four Stanley Cup Finals games rolled into one. Or maybe ten. Will the place will be in a frenzy? Or maybe a stunned silence as the enormity of what’s happened hits them?
By Sunday afternoon around 4:20pm, I’d know.
I also wondered what the town would be like? I talked to a friend up there when I was making arrangements to go, and he said there’s a collision of excitement and unseasonably warm weather which promises to make the weekend amazing.
As if to signal that everyone’s included, they’ve set up three giant screens at a gathering place a couple of blocks from the arena. Other people planned to congregate at the now-famous Portage and Main.
Actually, correction: that intersection has been famous since 1972 at least, the year when the greatest Jet of them all (quiet, Selanne fans—I get how great he is; I was there live in Anaheim for goal 600, and others, too), Bobby Hull, stood with his family and pronounced his intention to lead the Jets, then of the World Hockey Association, to the league championship, signalled by the Avco Cup. (They did end up winning that trophy, by the way, three times.)
Talking to my friend, I also learned that across Canada, the hype was building. That would be natural since the day-one opponent was the storied Montreal Canadiens, handpicked by the NHL for the purpose. The CBC would be doing a big pre-game special. Sportsnet and TSN would both be on it, though there’s no way for US fans to catch all of their coverage, as it’s not carried by the US NHL Network like Hockey Night in Canada is.
Thinking rationally about things as I saw Chicago out the United Airlines’ window, I told myself that it’s just a hockey game, and an early season one at that. Add to that the fact that despite the hype, Winnipeg is last year’s Atlanta with not a lot of shifting of lineup, and they’re not likely, even in the most hopeful scenario, to make the playoffs.
But then I thought again about standing there Sunday with the other 15,000 plus and the—who knows?—tens of thousands outside, and I knew that I would be as proud as I’ve ever been. To me, it wouldn’t matter a whit if the team won or lost, or if, as the season goes on, they sit in the bottom of their division all year, though I honestly hope that does not happen. Because Sunday is not about that. It’s about winning on a different level. It’s about the league waking up to the fact that you can’t sell burgers in a vegetarian country, to use a metaphor I’ve cited before.
It’s about the Game, bigger than this one game, and thus worthy of its capital “G.” It’s about Canada.
This is validation for Canada, let alone Winnipeg, a sign that we do have a say in what goes on at the highest levels of hockey. That we matter. It might be a bit sad that we need that. No matter. The point is, the game gets a little bit closer to being ours again when that puck drops every time the Jets play. Now, once again, the NHL is spread from Canadian coast to coast, with fewer gaps in between.
Sunday, it would not matter, at least to me, whether the Jets won or lost. If they did happen to win, then great. If not, then what will be remembered will not be the score. But I’ll bet that most likely, to cite an old cliché, in twenty years, a hundred thousand people will lay claim to having been there. So what? Let them tell the story that way. I’ll have my story too, and it will be true.
Brian Kennedy’s book “Living the Hockey Dream” has inside information straight from the mouths of Bobby Hull and Bobby Jr. about what life was like in Winnipeg back in the WHA days. A big thank you to the Jets for making this happen for me, and to the Goossens of Winnipeg, who showed me every corner of the town and introduced me to the vibe that all residents share in these exciting days.