Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A concession-stand view of Jets' return season

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Winnipeg's appetite for all things Jets has proven to be insatiable.

There have been all the navy blue jerseys, the ubiquitous licence plates, the inexplicable toasters and even 82 games, so far, to whip up a city, a province, a country and even a hockey world that starved for the game to return to a righteous arena.

So why not a literary look back at the eventful return of the National Hockey League to a city that waited 15 years for a belly full of the sport's signature brand?

That's the theory behind On the Fly, a sometimes wistful game-by-game look back at the season by Winnipeg novelist Wayne Tefs.

If hockey fans would rather get their analysis of the Jets by someone who has won a Lady Byng instead of a Margaret Laurence, as Tefs has done, don't fret.

He's a Winnipegger, after all, so he has a lifetime of actually playing and coaching the game. On top of that, he's a longtime season-ticket holder, so he's got the seat cred.

One of the hurdles Tefs struggles with is the source material. Sure, the NHL's return to Winnipeg after so many barren years was momentous, but the team's performance, looking back without the prism of nostalgia, was only so-so.

The euphoria of the team's emergence quickly gives way to the relative drudgery of wins and losses, pleasant surprises and pitfalls.

The Jets finished nine points short of the playoffs, and as Tefs recalls, many of the team's problems that fans noticed in October when the season started remained problems in April when it ended.

Whereas novels can usually build to a climax, On the Fly has no such luxury. Tefs tries to build some suspense, just as the Jets did in February, but their Titanic will hit the iceberg, just you wait and read.

It's easy to give in to the temptation to look ahead to chapters describing events that come quickly to mind. Be warned, however. What one person thinks was an intense battle royal -- a 2-1 Jets victory over the Wild in December is an example -- can come across as a tight-checking bore to someone else. Tefs notes this well, as his wife, his son, his seat neighbours or his beer-league teammates weigh in on the Jets' shortcomings or their successes.

Tefs does break up the monotony of all those games, and all those descriptions of the games that begin to blend together, with personal vignettes of his hockey life, such as it is.

These short stories become the book's strength; reading of some long ago moment that has stuck in Tefs' memory is like a good power play compared to the neutral-zone trap of fans hollering at Nik Antropov for the umpteenth time.

On the Fly's detachment from the stars on the ice also is striking. Many sports books try to give you the inside scoop about a player or team. Tefs takes you no closer than the concession stand, and that certainly provides a different point of view.

On the Fly might get fans' minds off the NHL lockout, but like the 2011-12 edition of the Jets, the team's fans will imagine what life might read like if the team, and therefore a novelist's reflections, might be with a winner.

 

Alan Small is a Winnipeg Free Press assistant city editor and Jets season-ticket holder.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 J8

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