When The Globe and Mail first told us that the Jets were coming back, he was in Winnipeg. Not for the first time, but for the last, and just to see if we could salvage a friendship from the wreckage of all of that.
So we were on the couch together, but sitting far apart, when Stephen Brunt’s article broke and the pictures all came: on Twitter, on TV, flooding images of fans hanging over the concrete at Portage and Main.
There were strings pulling at my chest, tugging me across the river down the street and to the place where Winnipeggers instinctually meet; I was so curious. “Maybe we should go down,” I said, “do you want to go down?”
But it was cold, and he shrugged, and so we stayed in.
The next day, he climbed on a train back to America, back to the green megaliths of the Pacific coast. I sat in my condo, rubbed the whiter-than-white skin on the fourth finger of my hand, and readjusted to the quiet of living alone.
“Were you always a hockey fan?”
I get this a lot ever since the Jets came back, ever since I opened my wallet for Jets gear and Jets tickets and turned my Twitter into a running love affair with the team. The answer, for posterity: yes, I was always a hockey fan. Just not of the NHL.
Oh, I tried for a bit in high school, and hopped some bandwagons beyond that. There was a brief affair with the Red Wings, a dalliance with the Canucks; but for lack of a professional team to really love, I turned periodic attention to national campaigns. The Olympics, the World Championship, and World Junior teams. Once the teenagers went pro, I always lost track.
Then the Jets came back, and there was only one option: total commitment.
The day of the first pre-season game, word went out on Twitter that there were tickets up for sale. I clicked to Ticketmaster and got a hit on a seat in the very first row. And I hemmed and hawed until I finally thought: I’ll remember the game more than whatever I would have done with two hundred bucks.
Because really, how could I ever forget?
Oh, the buzz in the air and the roar of the crowd, so loud it crushed the music and the goal horn under a wrecking ball of sound, it was beautiful. I was right behind the net when Mark Scheifele potted his first goal on an NHL stage; it was pre-season, fine. It counts in my memory just the same.
God, I was so proud.
In all the time that relationship lasted, we only watched – really watched – one hockey game.
See, I was a Manitoba girl, born into cycles of prairies and harvests and ice; he grew up in the rainforests of the Oregon coast. If hockey permeates the Canadian psyche, there it is but a sporty footnote; try to find a bar in Portland that carries the NHL channels. You won’t.
Sometimes, this tiny clash of cultures led to moments of perfect glee.
This was the game: we were packed into an Osborne Village bar, eyes fixed on Iggy and on Sidney Crosby. Then the golden goal was recorded, and all the world exploded, and I leaped out of my seat before I felt him tugging at my hand. “Don’t get too excited,” he said, hazel eyes wide with worry. “There’s still 10 minutes left.”
I laughed so loud it came out like screaming. I yanked him to his feet and we stood there, singing. Outside, kids in tank-tops ran flags up the street, and I hoped it would stir in him the same joy for my country. “This is the Canada I always wanted you to see,” I said.
Point being, hockey wasn’t really his thing.
Which meant it was ready to become that, for me.
In the aftermath of every relationship, there are stains: the restaurant you avoid, the towels you toss, the album you can never listen to again.
For me, the stain spread across the city that he could never love, and I could never really leave.
The city wasn’t what broke us, but it was a wedge that kept us from ever being whole. So after we were over, it didn’t look like Winnipeg anymore: in its place, all I saw was a Tyndall-stone mausoleum to a promise that smashed over its streets. And all the what-ifs, and the what-woulda-beens; for the first time in my life, I thought about getting out.
Then the Jets came back, and Winnipeg came alive.
Before the Jets, prairie winters were clouded white and grey; in the excitement of those first post-NHL days, we painted our city polar night blue. We bundled up in Jets shirts and sweaters and gloves and tuques, and turned our faces to the team like the warmth of a fire. It was a story Winnipeggers were writing together, and as for me? I was damn ready to open a blank page.
In short, the Jets washed the stain from my Winnipeg, and gave it back to me like new.
Every game, every goal, every broken play belonged to the city, and to me, and they were ours alone. Only those of us who lived here could really understand — well, only us, or die-hard hockey fans. In those first months, the NHL’s return to Winnipeg felt both fresh and perfect-old, it felt like childhood. Before anything hurt, or got confused, or cold.
Before the Jets, I never wore logos. After their return, the roundel blossomed in my closet. Every interview read like literature, every statistic a treasure map to be translated and debated; the bonds we forged in the debating are something to be cherished. Even the losing games were a source of perverse giggles, and communal warmth.
“That was hilariously bad,” we’d all Tweet. “Just bring the boys back home.”
Why I will always love them: because they brought me back here, too.
That year, I actually went back to Portland. The plan was to mark a milestone birthday tangled up in its quirky beauty, but instead I spent hours searching for a sports bar that carried Jets games. In the end, I settled for hotel wireless, my iPhone and an illegal stream. It was choppy, but just clear enough to watch the Bruins win in overtime.
In that moment, nestled between emerald hills and glistening cobblestones, I suddenly wished that I was back at home: back in Winnipeg, back in the cold, back where hockey is at the heart of it all.
It’s nineteen months later, now. Life moves on and I did too; we’re all a little farther than where we were back then.
Still, as the lockout ennui evaporates, a surge of gratitude: this is more than a game owned by millionaires and played in front of masses. It’s also a canvas on which we draw out our stories, discover the best things about each other, and let the good times roll.
Which is all to say: go Jets go.