Out of step Without live sports and enthusiastic fans to fuel his footwork during the pandemic, he's Despondent Gabe
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/08/2020 (763 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Dancing Gabe remembers the date of the last Winnipeg Jets game at which he was able to bust a move.
“It was March 9, against Arizona,” he says over the phone. “That was the last time.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted live sporting events all over the world, our city included. Seasons have been abbreviated or cancelled. The Winnipeg pro sports teams who have been able to return to play have done so in other cities.
And no home games means no Dancing Gabe.
Over the past 30-plus years, sports superfan “Dancing Gabe” Langlois, 57, has become a bona fide Winnipeg icon, delighting fellow fans with his infectious enthusiasm, kindness and, of course, his signature dance moves. He’s livened up the stands at Jets, Blue Bombers, Moose and Goldeyes games, and has been fêted with several personalized Dancing Gabe jerseys. No matter the team, No. 91 is a member.
“Winnipeg has really embraced him, they really have,” Claudette Langlois says of her brother, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. “It’s just a great city that we live in. I’m really proud of him. He has so much energy. He’s always doing stuff. He doesn’t stop.”
And so, the prospect of a season on the bench, as it were, has been difficult for Gabe.
“Never in my entire life has the CFL cancelled our Blue Bomber season,” he tells me over the phone.
“I’m disappointed,” he adds, calling the day the plug was officially pulled on a CFL season “the darkest day ever” in the “toughest year ever.”
He sighs. “It’s crazy. I’m missing hockey, football, baseball.”
● ● ●
While Aug. 17, 2020, may go down for Gabe as the darkest day ever in the toughest year ever, Nov. 24, 2019, is no doubt the brightest day ever in a banner year. That’s the day the Winnipeg Blue Bombers took home the Grey Cup for the first time since 1990. Dancing Gabe was there, at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium, of course.
“One of the most memorable moments was winning the Grey Cup last November,” he says. “My sister Claudette and I went to Calgary. It was fantastic.”
“We were treated like one of them,” says Claudette, 54, who lives with her brother. “It was just an awesome experience.”
The Bombers flew the Langlois siblings to Calgary, where they attended a host of Grey Cup weekend events. But it was being out on the field with her brother, celebrating that hard-won victory with the team, that stands out most of all.
“I cried watching him,” Claudette says. “That’s how much this meant to him. It was just priceless. I remember my mother always saying, ‘Keep on praying, Gabe, they’ll win the Grey Cup.’ After a while it was like, ‘OK, mum,’” she says with a laugh. “But they did.”
Claudette recalls walking around downtown Calgary and, even though they were two provinces away from Winnipeg, people were still clamouring to get a photo with Dancing Gabe.
“He was so proud of that,” she says.
• • •
By March, those Grey Cup festivities seemed distant and unfathomable.
“All the sporting events stopped,” Gabe says. “The NBA first, then the AHL, then Major League Baseball. The whole shebang.”
“I think it was very difficult for him,” Claudette says of those early weeks of the pandemic. And it wasn’t just the lack of sports; she saw how her brother struggled with the city shutting down — particularly his beloved St. Vital YMCA, where he’s been a longtime volunteer and employee. For an active guy with a routine, the idea of staying home all the time was at odds with who he is as a person. “He was always out,” Claudette says.
Indeed, pre-pandemic, Gabe’s dance card was full. He’s not just a fan of the pro teams; he’s a fan of sports, period. Claudette recalls a time he was invited to check out roller derby, a sport he didn’t know much about. “And he went. He had lots of fun. People call him to ask him to do stuff.”
Gabe says he hasn’t been dancing much these days, but he’s been keeping busy, especially now that some of the restrictions have been relaxed.
“I do the elliptical at home, working out at the Y,” he says.
“He likes to walk, that’s his big thing,” his sister says.
Of course, he’s also watching the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“My Winnipeg Jets didn’t do so well in the qualifying round against Calgary,” he says. “I’ll give the NHL credit — the bubble cities, Toronto out east and Edmonton out west, they did a fabulous job.”
Like most Jets fans of a certain age, Gabe was also saddened by the news of Dale Hawerchuk’s death. “I was stunned,” he says. “I watched him at the old arena.”
There’s much Gabe’s missing right now, starting with Bell MTS Place. “It has amazing atmosphere,” he says. He misses being able to go to live sporting events. “Meeting fans, too,” he says.
For him, having fans in the stands is a requisite part of the sports experience, even on TV. “Wrestling and boxing, there are no fans. UFC, too. It’s kinda boring,” he says.
“I hope we bounce back in 2021,” he says. “I hope we bounce back.”
Us too, Gabe. Us too.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.