Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Great -- the Jets are back

Now, can we get to work on making this city great for everyone?

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After four months of hype, two preceding years of anticipation and a decade and a half of painful longing, the Winnipeg Jets are playing at home today.

There's so much emotion attached to this single game, it's not easy to assemble a single narrative for this genuinely historic moment. So much of this city's identity is interlaced with the presence or absence of its beloved Jets, it takes a bit of emotional distance to unravel the strands between the two.

To hundreds of thousands of hockey fans, the return of the National Hockey League is the embodiment of an adolescent wish-fulfilment scenario. As irrational as it may sound, the league's departure in 1996 created emotional wounds that may never heal, as the team that has returned will forever be cherished as a precious entity.

In short, no Winnipeg hockey fan will ever take the Jets for granted, notwithstanding David Thomson's deep pockets, Mark Chipman's hard work and the long-term financial commitments of 13,000 season-ticket holders.

Not everyone in this city is a hockey fan, of course. But to almost everyone in Winnipeg, the return of the Jets remains the feel-good story of the year, if not the decade.

The history of this isolated patch of prairie is fraught with victories and disappointments, both remembered and forgotten. The pattern started when Louis Riel helped found the province but was denied entry into the House of Commons and later hung. It continued when we became the fastest-growing community in North America but wound up slowing to a crawl and fading in economic and geopolitical importance.

It continued further when the promise of a modern, progressive Winnipeg during the postwar period was stunted by a half-century of political myopia, administrative antipathy and public apathy.

Because of this, something as frivolous as the return of a hockey team can be celebrated as a rare victory amid 141 years of emotional ping-pong.

Not everyone sees Winnipeg in terms of bittersweet memories and sepia-toned photos. To people living far from the Manitoba capital, especially in eastern centres, the NHL's return has flipped the usual Winnipeg narrative on its head.

Up until very recently, journalists living outside this city portrayed Winnipeg as a frigid, flood-prone and mosquito-plagued cultural backwater rife with gang crime and dubious architectural decisions.

With one flick of a Mark Chipman pen, we're now a scrappy, resilient and indefatigable medium-sized city with a sensibly balanced economy, a thriving cultural scene and forward-thinking politicians.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Winnipeggers know this, as we've become the Israelis of the Canadian Prairies: We see our home in shades of grey in spite of being characterized from afar in terms of black and white.

I've written these words before, but the NHL's return has neither transformed nor redeemed this city, which survived fairly well without a major-league hockey team. But in the eyes of the continent today, those themes of transformation and redemption will frame the stories about the Winnipeg-Montreal game, from the Vancouver Sun to the Toronto Star to the New York Times.

But only a handful of far-flung media consumers will really care about this city when they read about today's game or watch it on Hockey Night In Canada or listen to its dissection on TSN.

To Canadian hockey fans obsessed about the game, the return of the NHL is a patriotic event that represents nothing short of the righting of a historical wrong.

The presence of the Jets playing out of downtown's MTS Centre will give hope to long-suffering fans in Quebec and Hamilton about reclaiming or receiving franchises. It will give hope to those in Toronto who would love to see a second team based in Canada's largest metropolitan area.

Given the league's performance in southern U.S. markets, there's cause for optimism in these cities. But there's nothing sunny at all about the final narrative of the day, which involves people too desperate to care that Winnipeg has an NHL team once again.

Optimistic or otherwise, Winnipeg remains among the most poverty-stricken cities in North America. This poverty, which inordinately affects First Nations, correlates with family breakdown, both petty crime and serious gang involvement, addiction, mental-health issues, disease and the violence and misery that swirls amid this all.

Overlaid upon this is abject racism, as exemplified by the now-infamous Air Canada memo that appeared to blame downtown violence, public intoxication and crimes of opportunity on First Nations flood evacuees, of which mere dozens exist in downtown Winnipeg.

Air Canada has only offered a half-hearted apology for its sloppily researched and irresponsible internal memo, which the airline never to intended to make public. It seems probable, if not certain, the intended target of the memo was an entire First Nations underclass, as well as other poverty-affected people in downtown Winnipeg.

The memo provoked anger, but also curious support from many Winnipeggers who took no issue with Air Canada's sentiment. The rednecks in our midst did not care that the airline scapegoated flood evacuees to address the wider and legitimate problem of downtown safety.

At the risk of being naive, this incident should inspire First Nations leaders, police and politicians to engage in an open and honest discussion about this city's almost apartheid-like ethnic divide. Our failure to bridge the gap between rich and poor, comfortable and disenfranchised, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, is nothing short of a national embarrassment.

So yes, we have the Jets back. And today can be a day to celebrate.

Tomorrow, let's commit to making this city a better place for everyone -- hockey fans, non-hockey fans and people who don't know where their next warm meal is coming from, let alone which warm market will supply their hockey team.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2011 A1


Updated on Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 7:04 PM CDT: Fixed the lede, which was missing from web version.

October 12, 2011 at 9:21 AM: corrects typo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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