At around 6:30am Central on Sunday January 6th, 2013 our great nation was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. It was then that the 113 days of pain for a hockey fan ended. A tentative agreement to end the NHL’s fourth lockout/stoppage in 20 years had been reached.
Growing up in a winter wonderland like Winnipeg, I couldn’t help but love hockey. It was what we played in the winters while growing up, street hockey with all the neighbourhood kids. I was never a shutdown goalie, or a blue line sniper, hell I didn’t even play the game on ice very often… but it didn’t matter, hockey was baked into my DNA. Boot hockey at recess and shouts of “CAR!” and “GAME ON!” was what my childhood was made of, even in the summer.
As far back as I can remember I was a fan of the Winnipeg Jets. I was born around the time they made the move over from the WHA to the NHL, and I can remember seeing the odd early NHL franchise game on TV. I would sneak down, or sometimes even be allowed to stay up to watch the game with my family on those rare days that the games weren’t blacked out locally. I can vividly remember each time we received tickets to the games for Christmas (usually when they played the evil Oilers), sitting in the lower section cheering on the team while my Mom yelled for Gretzky to get out his crying towel. I can even remember heading to 5-10 games a year with my friends while growing up, buying the $8 nosebleed tickets at Safeway. If you know the old barn, you know that the nosebleeds could only be called seats due to the fact that they allowed you to sit. You couldn’t see the game unless you stood, and doing so brought on full on vertigo due to the 1000 foot drop (ok, maybe it wasn’t that high… I was a kid!). Truthfully that didn’t bother us. We were watching Hockey damnit, plus we would move down for the third period anyways.
Fast forward to 1996 when the worst thing that could happen to a Winnipeg hockey fan occured, we lost our team. The Jets moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes. I can remember all of the Jets rallies all of the “No way they are leaving” comments and political bantering. No amount of talk could change the fact that the Canadian dollar was at .60 US and no one wanted to step up locally to take on this financial burden. Never mind the fact that a new arena would be needed for the franchise to remain. So with sadness the team was lost, as was my passion for the game. There became a puck sized void in my life.
One of the strongest memories that I still hold on to from then was attending the last 5 Jets games all decked out in white and cheering on the team that I loved. I remember that eerie period of time after the final game when the Jets finally skated off the ice following a long and tearfull salute to us fans. In the end I just stood there for what seemed like hours, my face showing the signs of a few rounds of tears. Stunned and silent. My heart was being ripped out in front of me. My team was gone.
After that game I swore off the NHL. I refused to watch any games from the league that left me. I moved on.
I begrudgingly came back to the NHL and watched the odd playoff game just in time to see the league lose the whole 2005 season. I left again, asking how any professional sports league could be so stupid. How could they hurt the fans like this? I really only came back as a regular fan again in 2009, mainly due to the drama in the desert. The rumor had it that Phoenix was set to move back to Winnipeg. How could I miss that? To win our team back from the city who took it from us, that’s a summer blockbuster movie plot right there. In the end I know that no one stole our team instead we couldn’t take care of it, but that is besides the point in this case. Phoenix wasn’t to be and instead it was Atlanta who lost their franchise for the second time (poor fans, I honestly feel bad for you), what a turbulent couple of years for a Winnipeg hockey fan.
So like any good Winnipegger would do I took the day off work and took my kids out of school on May 31st, 2012. We all went down as a family to the Forks to watch the press conference where True North announced that they had bought the Atlanta Thrashers franchise and were moving them up here. Hell, I also stupidly stood in line for 5 hours to buy the first Jets logo wear at the MTS Center the day the new Jerseys were unveiled, even though they were available the next day at sports retailers. All of that love for the team that I had from when I was a kid came rushing back to me, and I’m a full on Jets fan again. Posters, flags, foam fingers and jerseys now decorate my walls… it’s like I’m a kid again. Hell, I have kids and I’m doing my best to make the Jets a part of their lives too. Maybe too much if you listen to my wife.
In reality, explaining to a 5 and 6 year old why there wasn’t hockey in October “Like you said, Daddy.” was tough. My kids don’t understand contract disputes, they don’t understand 50/50 splits of HRR or escrow, they just understand that the thing I did 82 times with them last year wasn’t happening. I could see a little bit of the sadness I had in 1996 in them and it broke my heart (again).
That is all behind us, at least for the next eight to ten years. We Jets fans can get back to cheering and jeering the team that we love. I can get back to tweeting during the games, much to the disappointment of my followers I’m sure. Most importantly I can get back to cheering for the team I love with my kids. My jersey can come up off the wall and onto my back again, and it’s a beautiful thing.
So here is to the Winnipeg Jets on their shortened 2013 season. May they play hard and score often. More importantly, may they finish ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Yeah, screw the Leafs.