Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vet stands on guard for his Jets

Saluting senior beloved fixture of O Canada

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Len Kropioski has become almost as big a part of O Canada at Winnipeg Jets games as the yelling out of "True North."

The 93-year-old Second World War veteran has become a fixture on the scoreboard at the MTS Centre during the final seconds of the national anthem before each game. He's standing at attention, dressed in a navy jacket with Canadian and U.S. pins on the lapel, a baseball cap with "Veteran" across the front and he's belting out the national anthem as if his life depended on it. Perhaps it did at one point in his military career.

"Being a veteran, I always like to salute my Canadian flag and I do it for my country because I love my country," Kropioski said.

In 1943, the now-Kenora resident served with the Winnipeg Grenadiers in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. He and his fellow Canadian soldiers, along with their American counterparts, were sent there after the Japanese fled.

He had no idea the first time his image was shown on the scoreboard but he found out a few minutes after he walked in his front door.

"There were all kinds of messages on my answering machine saying that they had seen me on TV," he said.

Kropioski, who was born in 1918 and grew up on Burrows Avenue, admits to being a little bit embarrassed by all the attention but he's proud of his fandom for the Jets. He said he gets excited on game days to the point he sometimes can't eat when he gets into town after his two-hour drive down the Trans-Canada Highway.

"I look for my tickets (at home) because I want to make sure I've got them. Then I get dressed up, have my breakfast and I'm all set to go at two o'clock. I'm just as excited as the players," he said.

When members of the True North game production staff saw Kropioski during the national anthem early in the season, they could hardly believe their eyes.

"He was perfect," said Kyle Balharry, director of event production at True North, "With our connection to the air force and a veteran saluting the national anthem and singing along, he fit the bill," he said.

Although the team tries to vary the people shown on the scoreboard during O Canada, it's difficult not to show Kropioski.

"The shot embodies everything about patriotism, Canada and the veterans that got us here," he said.

Kropioski is known to more than just the 15,003 other fans at the MTS Centre. TSN picked up on True North's scoreboard visuals and starting showing him during their broadcasts, too.

"It's a fantastic image. It's one of those times when you get chills and people start cheering. The first time we put him on, the fans went crazy," Balharry said.

Kropioski has a long history of cheering on teams in his hometown. He was a season-ticket holder with the Manitoba Moose and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and he was a regular at Winnipeg Jets games in the old arena. Why not? In the early days of the WHA, he knew the team's owner, Ben Hatskin -- they went to St. John's Technical High School together -- and the team's assistant coach, Nick Mickoski.

"I remember in 1935 when the Blue Bombers won their first Grey Cup. It was 18-12 over Hamilton," he said.

Kropioski said he hopes the Jets give him no reason to be "at ease" for a long time this spring.

"I'm not ready to golf yet," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2012 B2

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