BY: Ben Macphee-Sigurdson
Part of the beauty of winter in Winnipeg is that it gets sunnier as it gets colder. I learned to skate on an outdoor rink in sunny, brutally cold Winnipeg winters. The cold is deceptive – as my dad would help me lace up my skates inside the community club, it always looked warmer than it actually was outside. But by the end of practice I’d often be crying because my toes or fingers were so cold.
The year I first learned to skate, Dale Hawerchuk – my childhood idol – helped stage the most dramatic turnaround for a team in NHL history, taking the Jets from cellar dwellers to playoff contenders. By the time Teemu Selanne broke the NHL record for goals by a rookie in March of 1993, famously skeet-shooting his glove out of the air against the Quebec Nordiques, my hockey playing “career” was over. I finished high school, worked at a record store for a year, started playing in local bands, and met the woman I’d eventually marry.
In those later years of the first incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets, my love for the team waxed and waned. Less successful 1990s iterations of the team, my growing commitment to playing in bands and an increasing workload at university made following the team more challenging. The year the Jets left, I was resigned to their departure. The reasons for their departure made complete sense – an outdated arena, nobody to buy the team and a weak Canadian dollar made it clear there was little chance the team could stay.
After the Jets left I was sort of disgusted by the NHL, and turned away from hockey for a few years. But the beauty and speed of the game lured me back. Today I’m one of those guys with jerseys hanging on my basement walls: three Montreal Canadiens sweaters (the team I adopted post-Jets) and a Hawerchuk jersey.
On May 31, 2011, True North Sports and Entertainment’s Mark Chipman announced that the organization had entered into an agreement to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers and relocate them to Winnipeg. I watched the press conference in shock and near-disbelief – there were Gary Bettman, David Thomson, and the rest of them. In Winnipeg. Our mayor led a conga line around the Forks with Thomas Steen. It was beyond real – it was surreal.
A month later, I made my way to the MTS Centre with thousands of other Winnipeg hockey fans to watch (via the scoreboard’s screen) Chipman step up to the podium in St. Paul, Minnesota at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. News had broken earlier that week that the team name would be announced. After some raucous applause for Chipman (and a bit of booing as commissioner Gary Bettman was thanked) we thousands at the MTS Centre went sort of quiet as our team’s owner got down to business.
“It’s now my pleasure to introduce our executive vice-president and general manager, Mr. Kevin Cheveldayoff, who will make our first pick on behalf of the Winnipeg Jets.”
Mayhem ensued. Most of us barely noticed as Cheveldayoff chose a lanky kid named Mark Scheifele from the Barrie Colts (coached and mentored by Dale Hawerchuk), handing him a generic NHL jersey to throw over his lanky frame. True North heard the public outcry – the team would be the Jets.
The logo was released a couple months after the name. Then in September, four Jets emerged through a haze of blue smoke from the back of a Hercules plane on a local Air Force base, sporting the home and away jerseys for the first time. I should have been elated, but I felt indifference.
Part of me is thrilled: I love NHL hockey and I think its return to Winnipeg is a tremendous feat for a city that grapples for positives. But another part of me feels no connection to the Winnipeg Jets v2.0, and can’t comprehend how so many thousands can throw their support behind what has been a mediocre team so quickly and blindly.
In a couple of years, my son will be old enough to play hockey. By that time, he’ll be thinking of his own Jets idol as he braces himself for the cold glare of the outdoor ice. Maybe by then I’ll have come around to these millionaire Atlanta transplants. Maybe one of their names will adorn a jersey on my basement wall. I’m sure I’ll come around.
In a National Post piece on May 31, Toronto musician/writer Dave Bidini called Winnipeggers “sad and beautiful, and so is their city, but whenever the light finds them, it shines hard.” Since the day Mark Chipman announced the purchase of the Thrashers, the light has never shone brighter on our city.
Summer in Winnipeg has been one of the sunniest and hottest in recent memory. Fall has been ridiculously warm and sun-kissed as tonight's home opener has crept closer. Winter, in typical Winnipeg fashion, will be a bone-chilling deep freeze.
But with that brutal cold comes the brightest sun.