Winnipeg Odyssey (Part Six of Six)

Part Six: Is the Hype Really Over?

Reporting on Sunday, the first day of life for the reborn Winnipeg Jets, I wrote something to the effect of, “Now that the initial hype of having a team in town is over . . . .”

I take that back.  The hype is not over, and it might not be for some time.  The Winnipeg Free Press on Monday had, and this is straight stuff, a feature about the team on the front page of EVERY section of the morning’s paper.

Front page: “We’re Back!” and a photo of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.

Section B, “City and Business,” a giant photo of the crowd in the lobby of the MTS Centre Sunday, waiting to get into the game.

Section C, “Sports,” a photo of the crowd inside the game, on their feet acting crazy when their team scored its first (and only, as it turned out) goal.

Section D, “Arts and Life,” has a picture of six young women sitting at a table enjoying drinks (mostly non-alcoholic, by the looks of it).  Who are they?  Wives of players including Brandy Ladd, Emily Glass and others.

In other words, this town is hungry for all things Jets, and just because the regular season is on, and the team, maybe somewhat ironically, is on the road for the week, that doesn’t mean that the need for news is quelled, nor will it be for a long, long time, because now the masses of Winnipegers have something that’s there’s, something to cling to on the cold winter nights.  Games to watch, where their town, their interests, and their love of hockey are represented.

Aside from the usual go-round of NHL news about who’s coming and going from the team, who’s hurt, and the likely endless analysis of the power play and penalty kill, whether either is successful or not, Winnipegers will, for some time to come, want to know everything about their boys.

Where’d they play Junior?  What was their favorite subject in high school?  What’s on their Ipods?  What are they driving?  (It had better have a block heater, because although this summer has been nice, winter can be brutal.  In 2005, for instance, there were thirty days during the winter when it didn’t get any warmer that -40 degrees celcius.  Yes, minus forty.)

That hunger for the team is probably going to be magnified given that Winnipeg is somewhere between a big small city and a small big one.  700,000 people call it home, and when you add in the surrounding area, it’s, well, 700,000 and a few.  The closest big settlement is Brandon, and that’s two hours away and only 70,000.

What I found over the course of my weekend in Manitoba is that the city is small enough that everyone kind of-sort of knows everyone else.  That is, the circles are small.

Though there were a lot of people locked out of the ticket-buying frenzy, for instance, almost everyone seems to know someone who has promised them a game or two.  (Face value—they’re not allowed to scalp, and the local authorities are seriously enforcing the rules.  One man I heard about from my relatives while I was there was already caught reselling his seats and fined.)

Unlike in a big city where hockey doesn’t matter much (Atlanta, Los Angeles) to most people, the players will not be anonymous.  And the city is not big enough for them to be swallowed back up into it when they leave the arena after games, as is the case in a place like New York or Chicago.

Most Winnipeggers will know, a month from now, where to trick-or-treat if they want to see the houses of Ladd, Byfuglien, or Bogosian.

Local media will feed the need to know about these guys and their every move, off the ice as well as on.  And don’t forget, most of them are fans, too, and they’re now, suddenly, in the big leagues along with their team.

On the other hand, and I mean this in the best possible way, it will take a long time for the rest of the hockey world to get used to their being a team in Winnipeg.  Suddenly, that mental map that we have in our brains has been adjusted.  There’s no great big gap between Calgary and Toronto, no empty space somewhere above North Dakota, or, to give it a closer hockey reference, Minnesota.

Now there’s something there, and the sooner everyone forgets that it’s the lowly Atlanta franchise, the better.  The people of Winnipeg are in the process of negotiating between the two pasts offered them—that of “their” Jets, which is still in Phoenix, and that of the Thrashers, which is horrid.

Consider one opinion I heard rendered by a lifelong resident while I celebrated Thanksgiving with family in the ‘Peg Monday afternoon: “We’re better off without Phoenix coming here.  So it’s not the old Jets.  We get no history to speak of, with Atlanta, but at the least we’re starting over.  We can make our own history.”  Those weren’t the exact words, but close—forgive me! I had a mouthful of Saskatoon berry pie on the go and couldn’t exactly reach my tape recorder.

The “other” Jets, the 1972-96 team, let it not be forgotten, were at times OK, at times horrible.  The WHA version won three Avco Cups, including the last one awarded, in 1979.  The NHL Jets started off bad and got worse, recording a record of just twenty wins their first year.  The next year, it was nine, against 57 losses.  Their second to last year (1994-95), they won sixteen games.  In just one season in three did they win more than they lost over the course of their NHL tenure from 1979-96.  They left town with a .442 winning percentage in seventeen years of play.

So while the memories of Hull, Hedberg, and Selanne still spark a gleam in locals’ eyes, there isn’t really a lot to celebrate if analyzing things in strict numerical terms.  The old Jets did make the playoffs eleven times, but they never got past round two.

The team now in town from Atlanta has an eleven-year history with just one playoff appearance, in which they lost all four games. So which is the Jets?

The team’s media guide cites all of the Atlanta history as the history of the Jets’ franchise.  It’s a connundrum, but one that nobody is particularly quick to resolve.  Instead, what they talk about is the living link to the past, Teemu Selanne, and how he’s coming to town.

My sort-of nephew (it’s my sister’s family by marriage who lives in Winnipeg, though they treated me like family as I stayed with them and enjoyed the historic weekend), who is just sixteen and thus has no firsthand recollection of the Finnish Flash playing in town (Selanne was there from 1992-96, being sent to Anaheim partway through that season), speculating on the December 17th game when Selanne comes to town, said, “I hope he scores.  I bet he’s going to do that thing,” and here he paused to show Selanne’s old-time goal celebration, throwing a glove in the air and shooting it with his stick/rifle.

Probably most adults are hoping so, too, because for them, the Winnipeg Odyssey is not a weekend fling, like it was for me, but what they hope will be a lifelong adventure, filled with playoff berths, hard-fought series, and, someday, a Stanley Cup at Portage and Main.

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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