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Jets Nation delivers

Road-tripping Winnipeg fans showed they can love their team without losing perspective

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Jets fans did themselves proud at Tuesday's game in Glendale, Ariz.


Jets fans did themselves proud at Tuesday's game in Glendale, Ariz.

It was late Tuesday night in a Glendale, Ariz., pub with a 4 a.m. wake-up call beginning to feel less than glamorous when the true spirit of Winnipeg Jets fans washed over me.

Give Jets Nation credit. They travel well and they're more about love of hockey, their Jets and their hometown than anything else.

Sure, there are the rabid few who take things too far at times and lose perspective.

"The Jets are my life and therefore I can act like an idiot if I don't like what I'm seeing, hearing or reading," is thankfully an uncommon attitude.

As time ran down on this season and with a road trip through Texas, California and Arizona in the offing, lots of Manitobans packed sunscreen and Jets jerseys and hit the road.

And they were great. They bellowed out "True North" during the anthems, hung around arena doors in the morning hoping for autographs and collected every extra Teemu Selanne poster they could get their hands on in Anaheim.

But it wasn't until Phoenix that they showed both their power and grace.

Thousands were at Arena on Tuesday night and when the anthem singer gave them their cue during O Canada, the shouted "True North" was solid. So solid, the Jets fans gave themselves a little cheer after surprising themselves with their bold announcement.

There was lots of beer and lots of teasing. But it was mostly polite and fun. No fights, no scenes. Jets 2.0 fans mixing with Jets 1.0 fans. Coyotes customers made to feel welcome in their barn by the visiting hordes.

The bars around the rink were clogged with Winnipeggers following the game and they were smiling and laughing and planning their next road trip. For a Winnipeg resident, it was great to see neighbours and strangers from the same city sharing a commonality but not ramping it up into jingoism.

Close to midnight after filing my last story and having a beer at the hotel with some media colleagues, I headed into the cluster of bars and restaurants to take in the atmosphere.

The last time I'd walked this little strip and turned into McFadden's Pub, insults from Coyotes fans, angry about relocation columns I'd written, were hurled my way.

One man stood up to threaten me, but a pair of Winnipeg police officers on holiday intervened. It wasn't a particularly fond memory.

On Tuesday night, as I walked past a table of Jets and Coyotes fans sitting together, an invitation and a cold beer were pushed my way. I sat for a few minutes and answered questions and shared in some jokes. It was great.

It's not often that I get to feel part of the crowd, and to be honest, this was a 50-50 prospect for me. I was prepared to take a little heat but was far happier for the warm welcome.

The golden moments have been a little harder to come by this season and the atmosphere at the MTS Centre has slipped a notch.

The crowd is still better than most and when the Jets do their part on the ice, the folks in the stands can still deliver. But it's not an organic wave of noise from beginning to end such as it once was, and that had to be expected over time.

Are Jets fans jaded? Certainly not, if you go by the recent season-ticket contract renewal rate of 96 per cent.

But losing gets old. It gets boring and frustrating.

Tuesday night, however, was another look at what the NHL being back in Winnipeg means to the city and its people.

Proud and present as members of the greatest hockey league in the world. Right where our historic and thriving hockey town should be.

The lasting image of Tuesday night will be looking down at the lower bowl of the arena some 10 minutes after the game had ended with hundreds of Jets fans still standing and chatting and passing the odd high-five.

They didn't want to leave. Their team won and they'd done their thing, cheering all night. It was one of the most positive pictures from a disappointing season.

The fans gave their players thanks. Certainly the fans deserve the same.

Nice work, folks.

Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2014 D3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.


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