Saturday’s are synonymous with The Ack, weekend editor at The Tao of Stieb. If there’s one thing The Ack writes with, it’s passion. He refrains from “stat-hurling,” as @mererog so eloquently put it, and doesn’t come off the least bit condescending, something I appreciate more and more these days. I mean, I’ve got only so much time to read what people are writing; why bother if I’m going to be talked down to like I’m some idiot? I relate to The Ack. He’s a fan of baseball, a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, and, more than anything else, wants his team to win.
Recently, though, I asked The Ack about his thoughts on the rumours — the rumours that just won’t go away — surrounding the Phoenix Coyotes, and how they’re Winnipeg-bound once their season is done. I remember The Ack writing that, once upon a time, he was the biggest hockey fan out there. The biggest Winnipeg Jets fan there could be. I knew it was a touchy subject, but, luckily for me, and us, The Ack obliged.
Thank you, Ack, for your most passionate post on hockey, your first love, Winnipeg, and your Jets. I can’t help but hope the rumours are true. Without further ado …
It comes across like a massive cliché – “When the Jets left, it felt like a death in the family.” But it did feel that way. It really did.
But maybe I should start at the beginning…
I don’t remember learning how to skate. I just know that I’ve known how to skate forever. Same thing about loving the game of hockey; I don’t have a “first hockey memory”, per se… I only know that I always did.
Here on the prairie, that’s just the way it goes. I imagine it’s the same experience for a kid in Toronto – or anywhere in Canada – but winters in Manitoba? Forget it. That’s all we had. And I would never have had it any other way. I loved the game and everything about it.
Growing up north of Winnipeg, I played on the local minor hockey circuit from the ages five through seventeen. Practices twice a week. Two or three games every weekend. And that was just the “organized” component of my hockey-playing love affair. There was the “free skating” time when the ice wasn’t booked at the local rink. There was the, um…. “unauthorized” shinny games when the barn was closed… access gained through a back door “mistakenly” left unlocked. Or maybe we’d make a few piles of snow for posts and throw down some road hockey. And the rare treat – scouring back roads for some virgin ice on a country pond. Yes, we really did things like that. That’s not just a bullshit scene made for wintery postcards.
And throughout all of that, there was always one constant.
I was Dale Hawerchuk making moves at centre ice. Sometimes I might have been Paul MacLean waiting to snipe at the side of the cage. Near the end, when you’re supposed to be too old to still dream about these things, I might have been Teemu Selanne streaking down the wing.
I – no, we – loved those Winnipeg Jets. A force in the NHL, they were never. But it mattered little to me (us), because they were ours. That was our team.
If my summertime dreams were narrated by Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth (they were), my winter voices were Curt Kielback and Kenny “the Friar” Nicholson. Those names won’t mean much to you, I’m sure, but they meant everything to me back then.
“Heeeeere’s Hawerchuk…makes his move…pass to MullenbacktoHawerchuktoMacLean!…he scores!”
Isn’t it funny how you can still hear those calls in your head some twenty five years later? I listened to every game. Every game! I’d bet the old man a quarter on each one, him always picking the other team just to let me have my fun. If you know Jets history, you’ll know that means I was out a few packs of gum, but I didn’t care. You have to bet on your team.
We always knew the franchise wasn’t the most stable. It was never a preferred destination for the players (and I’m being charitable). More than one talked their way out of town. The old Arena was an outdated mess of a building (but a fantastic atmosphere, especially in the playoffs) with 15,500 seats, of which maybe 13,000 had a halfway decent view of the ice. Local ownership had no money and didn’t even own the joint, and there were really no ways to improve the financial fortunes of the team. Luxury boxes? What’s that? It was a precarious existence, but we never thought, really, that it would come down to this.
And then the “for sale” talk got serious. And we all got nervous. We knew there would never be a local buyer. Actually, I wasn’t nervous. I was terrified.
As fans, we did everything we could. We held rallies. We congregated in the tens of thousands. There was a grassroots campaign. People were donating their own money – their own money! And it was in the millions! I’m talking kids emptying their piggy banks to “save the Jets”! That is not embellishment, friends. It really happened. Just pure, heartbreaking stuff, in retrospect.
Of course, it wasn’t enough. It never was going to be, but it was the symbolism that counted. The team was doomed to move, and we all knew it was simply a matter of time. The game hadn’t outgrown Winnipeg… but the NHL had. Goddamnit. We were losing our team.
The popular story is that 50,000 people will tell you they were at the last regular season game in that building of 15,500. I’m here to tell you that I really was one of them (courtesy tix from an ex-girlfriend. Thoughtful parting gift, don’t you think?). Watch this clip, if for no other reason than to obey the immortal words of Buck O’Neil: “Son, in this life, you never walk by a red dress.” Just trust me on this one.
I will never forget that game, that night, for as long as I’m alive. Never. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Watch for the emotion on the face of Kris King near the end of the anthem. He got it. Kinger still gets it. He knew (and still does) what the Jets meant to Winnipeg. Having just watched the clip myself, I had the same reaction I did back in ’96.
I choked up. Just now, I choked up. Fifteen years later. It still hurts.
There were a few more home playoff games, and that was that. They were gone. I kept all the local newspapers from that day. I still have them tucked away, somewhere. Thought I might frame them to preserve the memory. But who wants to remember that?
For a long, long time after 1996, I decided that I hated hockey. The game turned its back on me, so I was done with it too. Of course, hindsight tells me how foolish that was. The game didn’t leave Winnipeg… the NHL did. It took me a while to realize that, but I’ve yet to re-embrace the league. I can’t. I don’t have a team. I’ve tried adoption and it just didn’t work out.
I know that I still love the game. Canada vs USA in Vancouver? Forget it. Heart-attack city morphing into bliss. I know the passion is still there, but it would be nice to unleash it more than once every four years.
And now comes word that we, in this forgotten part of the country, just might have another chance. You have to understand what this means to us. Winnipeggers are used to the comments. I refuse to be baited into defending against the same old same old – “Winnipeg is a wholesale town; they can’t afford it; it’s not big enough; there’s no corporate support…” – even if I can acknowledge that some of it might be true.
Go ahead and fire your slings and arrows. We’re a hearty bunch. Another cliché, but living where we do, you have to be. Keep telling us that it will never work. You very well might be right.
We just want that chance to prove you wrong.
Image courtesy Sharon Hayes.