Late in the afternoon of October 9th, 2011, Nik Antropov, scored the first goal in the renaissance that is the 2.0 version of the Winnipeg Jets. In row three of section 312, at MTS Centre, two men in their early 40’s embraced in a din and celebration 16 years in the making. We jumped up and down like school kids and declared, “All is right with the world!”
This Heritage Classic weekend brings with it the opportunity to reminisce, to relieve our youth, the games, and the events surrounding the games that were the focus or the back-drop for so many memories, involving professional hockey in our city.
When the Jets left in 1996, it devastated generations of Winnipeggers who had grown up with a hockey team that almost literally put Winnipeg on the world map. That isn’t to say Winnipeg doesn’t have dozens of events, individuals, and institutions that proudly proclaim their connection to our humble home. But, the Jets were a unifying force. They won championships, all the while, creating a revolution that saw Europeans come to North America, en mas to participate at the games highest level. The Jets were Winnipeg’s number-one brand.
For me, the Jets defined my youth. I lived and died with Jets wins and losses. I was lucky to attend many games, practices, and special events. My parents, too, were caught up in the entire Winnipeg Jets story. Their story became our story. Their success our pride. I honestly believe the seed for my love of Winnipeg was planted, watered, and sewn through the exploits of 1975-76 thru 1978-79 Winnipeg Jets.
The memories are endless. From attending Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg’s last game as Winnipeg Jets on my 9th birthday, to getting my picture taken with Bobby Hull at a Junior Jets Fan Club event. Our lives revolved around our own sports, start times of Jets and Blue Bombers games; and very little else. We even had a dog that we named Nilsson.
We attended the parades, the open practices, and community events. My dad had partial season tickets. I remember him and his friends coming to the house to pick their games. I fondly recall attending games with him. I would have to pick which intermission I would receive my ice cream, or popcorn. I also recall the weekend my dad and his friends all piled into a rented van and drove to Bloomington, MN to see the Jets play the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars, in a pre-season game.
My brothers and I would eventually embark on numerous sports related adventures around North America; following our favourite teams and visiting some of sports most hallowed venues. All the while, my dad and mum wondering what they had done to create this obsession. Really?
The memory that reminds me most of how human and a part of the community at large these players were, was the day Anders Hedberg and the late Lars-Eric Sjoberg, lifted the hood of Hedberg’s Cadillac, in the parking lot at Winnipeg Arena. They happily pulled-up and offered their assistance in giving our VW Rabbit a “boost” on a stereo-typically frozen Manitoba winter afternoon. Is there anything more Manitoban?
The Jets move to the NHL created mixed emotions in our home. My dad pledged to never buy a ticket to “the other league”. The league that had prevented Bobby Hull from representing Canada in the summit series. The league that had stolen Anders and Ulf from the Jets. The league that had invited Winnipeg into their league, but not their team.
The Jets entered the “other league” as a franchise, in essentially name only.
The players that took to the ice for their first game in Pittsburgh, PA on October 10th, 1979; bore very little resemblance to the “team” which left the World Hockey Association a few months before. A team that left the WHA as three-time champions, and five-time finalists in the league’s seven year history. A team that had defeated the Soviet National Team, played at the Izvestia tournament in Moscow, toured Finland, and played the same Soviet team in a two game exhibition series in Tokyo, Japan. The powerhouse NHL Montreal Canadiens, can not claim any of those accomplishments.
The NHL Jets won only two playoff series in 17 years… not two championships, two SERIES. They created the now famous “white-out”, teased us with some sensational players and teams, and brought Teemu Selanne to North America. They revolutionized the game of hockey, as their style of play was the blueprint for the Edmonton Oilers, who may have been the most dominating team in NHL history.
On April 28th, 1996 the Jets moved to Arizona. The IHL and AHL filled the hockey void in our city. For me, the belief never died that one day my kids would wear a Jets jersey with pride.
As I recall all these incredible events, tidbits of time, and run them back in my mind, I realize that much of what I know and lived was experienced virtually. It was CJOB that took me to Tokyo, Moscow, Helsinki, and Quebec City. It was the voice of Ken “The Friar” Nicholson that painted pictures in my mind that created the memories of the events I could not see with my own eyes.
If you’ll forgive me, I will give my own head a shake and realize that my life has genuinely come full circle. I now have the honour to speak on the same frequency that was the sound track to my youth. It was this ability to “be there” via the magic of radio that was the beginning of the love-hate relationship I have with this place I call home.
So… It would genuinely seem that once Dale Hawerchuk, and a couple dozen other Winnipeg Jets greats take to the ice at our “brand new” football stadium in front of over 33,000 people, in the historic uniforms of our hockey team; THAT will in fact be the moment that all will be right in the world.
If you see two grown men (who met only because a common friend insisted they all attend, guess what together in 1990) embracing; most likely sharing what we now call a good “sports cry” in the seats at IGF this weekend… PLEASE say hello.