Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What's in a W?

A lot of memories, for one sports-memorabilia collector

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Demolition of the old Winnipeg Arena underway in 2005, with the W, along with other letters, already off the front of the building.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Demolition of the old Winnipeg Arena underway in 2005, with the W, along with other letters, already off the front of the building. Photo Store

Today's story is brought to you by the letter W. A hollow, one-of-a-kind, one-metre-by-one-metre, aluminum W.

The story dates back nearly a decade, when the Winnipeg Arena was laid to rest by a demolition team that administered the coup de grâce with explosives.

For our purposes, though, it starts more recently, in late December, when a 46-year-old Winnipeg woman -- who has requested anonymity -- called with a request. Could I help her get Neil Young's autograph when he was in town this week? People asking for help getting the signature of a touring celebrity isn't unusual in itself. What made this request different was what Neil Young was expected to sign. She wanted the former Kelvin High School student to sign the letter W that was salvaged back in 2005 from the sign above the front entrance to the Winnipeg Arena.

How did she end up with such a unique, symbolically significant souvenir of our city's past? Well, the way she tells it, back at the end of 2005, she just called someone at Rakowski Cartage & Wrecking and asked for it.

"I told him my husband was hard to buy for. And I really wanted that W."

And about a month later, the guy from the wrecking company called back and told her to come and get it. No charge.

It turns out there's another reason the wife wanted that letter in particular. Her husband had seats high up in the Winnipeg Stadium stands where he could admire the sign. And when he heard the building was coming down, he began coveting the first letter of both the building and the city he's so proud of. He's a sports-memorabilia collector, in case you hadn't gathered.

But what do you do with it once you've got it? In his case, he made space for it on his basement wall.

Then what?

Then you start carting the letter around, collecting autographs of athletes and entertainers who played in the Winnipeg Arena over five decades.

Starting with Gordie Howe.

Old No. 9 showed up at the hotel where the wife works and she asked Howe if he would sign the W.

He was happy to.

"He thought it was a really wonderful thing," she said.

Then Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings hit town together.

She knew someone well-placed at the MTS Centre and she knew he would understand the significance the letter W.

"He has the E," she explained.

So she asked if he would ask Randy and Burton to sign the W.

Which they were happy to do, too.

Then one summer, when Alexander Steen was playing host to his celebrity golf tournament, the husband showed up with the W. Now the W proudly wears the signatures of Guy Lafleur and Mark Messier, along with local favourites Joe Daley, Ab McDonald, Thomas Steen, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and best of all, Bobby Hull.

I say best of all Bobby Hull because of something the husband shared with me Friday. We were talking about where -- other than his basement wall -- the W really belongs, and I suggested it really should be in a place where we can all see it and remember all it represents.

The MTS Centre would be ideal.

"I totally agree with that," the husband said.

If he ever parted with his prize possession, he would want something in return, though.

No, not money.

"I would never sell it," he said.

But first, he feels Bobby Hull's career and connection to Winnipeg need to be celebrated and permanently acknowledged at the MTS Centre. Only then would he donate the W.

"People have to realize if it wasn't for Bobby Hull there would be none of this."

Of course, there are others responsible for what we have now with the next-generation NHL Winnipeg Jets, but I understand what he means, and I agree. So give us a B and an H to go with that W. And get all of it in the MTS Centre where it all belongs.

Oh, one more thing.

If you were wondering if I managed to help get Neil Young to sign the W, the answer is no.

But here's a thematic postscript.

After his news conference at the Centennial Concert Hall on Thursday afternoon, Neil did an impromptu autograph session for a group of young women huddled patiently in the cold behind the building. But when Free Press photographer Joe Bryksa tried to snap a shot, one of Young's security detail snapped, too. He smacked Joe's camera out of the way. And with that, the autograph session ended.

One can only shudder at the thought of what Neil Young's hired help would have done if someone had approached our hometown hero to autograph a giant, aluminum W.

W still loves ya anyway, Neil.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 B1

History

Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 6:51 PM CST: Correction to reflect that W is made of aluminum, not cast-iron.

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