Winnipeg Odyssey: Part Three (of Six)

Part Three: The Anticipation Builds

Sunday afternoon, gameday.  The puck would drop sometime after 4pm, but I decide to heard downtown early.  Noon.  What I find is that Winnipeg is not a madhouse, but close.  The MTS Centre is on a busy street, and all up and down, cars honk as fans wave from the sidewalk.  Almost everyone has a Jets sweater on.  Some are the new look unveiled this summer.  Others sport the old-school logo of the WHA/NHL era from 1972-96.  Many of those are autographed, some by more than a handful of players.

This being a home game, there’s also another team in town, and for those few fans of the Montreal Canadiens who have the gumption to wear their team’s logo and colors, the boos resounding.  It seems all in fun (nobody’s drunk yet—it’s too early in the day).

The game, though, is almost secondary to what this day means, and what the team means to the city of Winnipeg.  There’s a proud new strut to the step of the locals, who know that they’re back on the map.  As one man told me outside the arena a couple of hours before gametime.  “Winnipeg was basically erased from the map, when we were in the NHL.  You’d go to any American city, and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I know where Winnipeg is.’  Now they don’t know where Manitoba is, but you can see the difference right now.  Hopefully we’re back on the mag again, and it’s fitting, since Winnipeg is at a stage of time when it’s gonna move”  Arnie Silver said.

His son, Abe, was holding a sign meant to replicate the one that saw the Jets off fifteen years ago.  “Our Jets Will Fly 4-Ever” it read.  “It’s my homage to the past,” he explained.

Back in 1996, “I thought that I had saved the team,” Abe said.  “I was five, and the whole town got together to raise money to keep them in Winnipeg.  I gave two dollars.   My dad had to break it to me that they were leaving.  I was heartbroken.  I cried, because I thought I had made a difference.”  He never got the two bucks back, either.

Now all this time later, Abe is of age, and he gets what was really going on back then.  “They needed hundreds of millions of dollars, and what I did with my toonie wasn’t going to do anything, but I did my part,” he says now.  But that’s all past, Red River water under the bridge to use the local geography for metaphor, and the team is back.  What does that mean to thing young man, who is a university student at the U of Manitoba, in town?

“It definitely changes things,” he comments.  He says that he’s likely to stay in town, not because of the team, but just because this is a good place to be.

Other people tell me that at various times, the youth of Winnipeg flee to Vancouver or Toronto for opportunities, but that of late, there’s less talk of that.  This, now, has become a place worth investing a life in.  Abe summarizes: “I don’t think the NHL team keeps me here, but the atmosphere keeps me here. It’s a beacon of hope.  It says that things are coming back.  Things are looking up.  Winnipeg went through a down time, but the entire city, we’re coming back, and this epitomizes that.”

His dad chips in: “Back when we had an NHL team before, people knew where Winnipeg was.  Since then, you ask someone, say an American, where we are, and they have no idea.  That’s changed, as of today.  I heard that we were on the third page of the New York Times, something like that.” Most people driving past as we chat probably haven’t read that paper this weekend.  Why should they when they’ve got a local paper that’s full up with Jets coverage?

But the fact that the world, and not just that of hockey, now has this city on its radar matters.  The psyche of the city has taken a giant boost via the importation of this team from the deep South.

Does what happens in the game matter?  Saturday, I thought this over and decided that it didn’t.  Before the game Sunday, probably most fans would have agreed, pre-game.  But I’m not entirely sure everyone thinks like that.  On the way down the elevator, I happened to run into someone who works with the team, and he said that there was no way the Habs could ruin the Jets’ debut.  What he meant was, his team was going to prevail.

His prediction was that what would happen was that the Jets would be so insanely energetic that they would completely overrun Montreal and shoot to an early lead.  I think 5-1 was mentioned.  “There’s no way they’re going to spoil our debut,” he added.  It wasn’t bravado.  It was more like stating a fact such as “the library is two corners down on the east side of the street.”

Were people anticipating a hockey game as they crammed shoulder-to-shoulder waiting for the announcement of their team?  Not so much as just a moment, or a long string of them, that would allow them to celebrate a series of victories: over economic downtimes, over the forces that run the league, over their own sense of the town’s lack of importance.  As the arena filled, the energy was exploding.

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.

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