Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Seeing the (blue) light

OK. I admit it. The return of the Jets really has made city a sunnier place

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This afternoon, Winnipeggers will do what they normally do on a Sunday in the middle of March: Sit back on the patio, slather on a little suntan lotion and relax in the 26 C heat.

This freakish late-winter weather -- it officially remains winter for another two days -- is seriously messing with this frigid city's sense of identity. On March 18, we're supposed to be shovelling snow and shivering through -10 C lows, not watching grass turn green and seeing perennials sprout from the garden.

I can handle the young men and women walking around this weekend in shorts and T-shirts, as Winnipeggers have always been prone to gleefully baring their painfully pallid skins as soon as the mercury rises above zero. Unfortunate displays of untanned, untoned flesh are as big a part of this city's heritage as Louis Riel's madness, Sharon Carstairs' voice and Gary Doer's tooth-whitening strips.

But what I cannot handle is the mercury itself. After a mild but not unprecedented winter, I don't even want to begin to contemplate the notion that I have failed, yet again, to use my cross-country skis as often as I wanted to do during the brief, perhaps month-long window where there was actually enough snow on the ground to prevent my underused implements from getting scraped down into splintery toothpicks.

Poor baby, you must be thinking: Some grumpy middle-aged dude is now upset the world is not the same as it was when he was a little kid.

Well, this city isn't even the same as it was a year ago, when the entire province was still buried below a blanket of white and freaked out about a coming flood of then still unknown magnitude.

In the 366 days since St. Patrick's Day 2011, Winnipeg has become practically unrecognizable. Yes, we still have a Tory government in Ottawa, NDPers in charge on Broadway and Mayor Sam Katz reciting his litany of complaints on Main Street.

We still have gang violence, though police will quietly express some optimism about making headway in several neighbourhoods. We still have an underdeveloped downtown, though private investment is starting to follow decades of mammoth megaprojects and developmental subsidies.

We still have an unfinished stadium, an unfinished human rights museum, an unstarted new police headquarters and an abbreviated rapid-transit line. So visually, the city is pretty much the same.

But on a psychological level, the Manitoba capital I used to know has been replaced by some sunny doppleganger, where strangers high-five each other in the streets and slap each other on the shoulders in bars without provoking the usual Winnipeg violence.

I am talking about the irrational but undeniable excitement associated with the still-remote but as-yet-unextinguished playoff hopes of the Winnipeg Jets. As much as I do not want to care about the team and its fortunes, I cannot help but get emotionally involved -- and neither can a few hundred thousand other Winnipeggers.

Late last May, when True North Sports & Entertainment announced the National Hockey League was coming back, the entire city and much of the country cheered. I, too, was happy for the league's return. But I was also mightily annoyed, as readers might recall, that the re-establishment of a pro hockey franchise in the city was treated as a metaphor for some form of Winnipeg renaissance, especially from the perspective of people in other Canadian cities.

We were doing fine without the NHL, I protested to the expats in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, where half of Winnipeg now lives and romanticizes its past. We were humming along as a medium-sized city where the locals were finally comfortable in their nowhere-near-world-class skins. I felt Winnipeg didn't need this weird media phenomenon to reattain legitimacy in the eyes of elsewhere. And I was a little pissed.

But then something happened that I did not expect. I wound up with a small share of season tickets, thereby joining Winnipeg's new overprivileged clique. I started watching the games on TV, even though I had not watched the NHL since the original Jets left town in 1996. I started reading league and team statistics online after every game. I acquainted myself with some of the math involved in playoff probability projections. I became a bit obsessed.

In short, I am now the very model of the professional sports fan Noam Chomsky so accurately and disdainfully described in Manufacturing Consent: A person who fills so much of his brain with information so inconsequential to daily life, I may not be paying sufficient attention to things that actually affect me in significant ways.

In many ways, Chomsky was entirely accurate when he suggested pro sport had replaced religion as the chief opiate of the masses. But I'd argue the humourless dude was also being elitist and reductionist.

In reality, human beings can walk and chew gum at the same time. Intellectually, we can concern ourselves with matters both trivial and important simultaneously.

So I make no more apologies for caring about the Winnipeg Jets or Winnipeg Blue Bombers than I do for being obsessed about the global ocean-ecology crisis, the Southwest Rapid Transit Corridor, the television version of The Walking Dead, the ongoing Holocene extinction and cooking with chili peppers.

But I do feel a little stupid for caring so much about what happens to a group of 20 millionaires owned by a smaller group of millionaires (and one billionaire) whose annual profits are enhanced to some extent by public funding in the People's Republic of Manitoba.

Reluctantly, I am now forced to concede my personal quality of life -- that is, the level of enjoyment I experience every day -- has been enhanced by the return of the Winnipeg Jets. This does not mean I endorse the public funding for the club or the lack of attention and dollars devoted in this community to charities, causes, issues and attractions that are not the Winnipeg Jets.

But as I enjoy the bizarrely balmy weekend in a city that suddenly has a stupid hockey team to cheer on yet again, I would be a liar and a hypocrite if I did not at least confess my sin of being just like almost everybody else in this town.

Just don't expect to me shout "True North" during the national anthem. That bizarre practice amounts to overlaying one display of jingoism with another.

I have enough apologies to make to Noam Chomsky as it is.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 18, 2012 A8

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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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