Singing Winnipeg’s praises

The Jets are back, and so is vocalist Jennifer Hanson


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May 5, 1995: Three days after the Winnipeg Jets’ 1994-1995 strike-shortened season concluded with a 3-1 home loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the club held a farewell party — most called it a wake — at the Winnipeg Arena, during which an emotionally charged Ed Olczyk famously declared, “Wherever this team ends up, when this team wins the Stanley Cup... it’s coming back to Winnipeg”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/04/2018 (1809 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

May 5, 1995: Three days after the Winnipeg Jets’ 1994-1995 strike-shortened season concluded with a 3-1 home loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the club held a farewell party — most called it a wake — at the Winnipeg Arena, during which an emotionally charged Ed Olczyk famously declared, “Wherever this team ends up, when this team wins the Stanley Cup… it’s coming back to Winnipeg”

One of the people in the stands that afternoon was Jennifer Hanson, who, for the last six years of its existence, was the Jets 1.0’s primary anthem singer. Like the other 15,000 people in attendance, Hanson was there to bid adieu to her favourite team. Except when a staffer spotted her in the crowd, he called out asking if she wanted to perform O Canada one last time.

(That day, nobody knew the Jets would end up having to play a final, lame-duck season in Winnipeg, before relocating to Arizona for the beginning of the 1996-97 NHL campaign.)

After responding, “of course,” Hanson headed to her usual station in the bowels of the Maroons Road rink, to warm up her voice. Moments later, she was joined by a visibly shaken Barry Shenkarow, the team’s owner, and Hockey Night in Canada personality Don Cherry, who had travelled to Winnipeg to lend his support. The three shared a group hug before she headed out onto the ice surface.

“I remember trying hard not to bawl my eyes out but it was definitely tough,” says Hanson, who moved back to Winnipeg last June, following a near-20 year absence from the city. “That day, I was the same as everybody else, figuring that was it… that we’d lost our team for good. Nobody could have guessed we’d be sitting here all these years later, talking about the Jets and the Stanley Cup playoffs in the same sentence.”

● ● ●

Two weeks ago, Hanson was in a bookstore, combing through new releases, when a man she guesses was in his mid-50s approached her and asked, “Excuse me, but are you Jennifer Hanson, who used to sing at Jets games in the old days?”

“Even though all this time has passed, it’s still the only way 99 per cent of Winnipeggers know who I am,” she says with a laugh, adding that she lives here again. The other question she fields most often is whether fans can expect to see her at Bell MTS Centre any time soon, belting out the American and Canadian anthems.

“My answer is always the same: I did that already, it was joyous but it was a lifetime ago, so no. Plus Stacey (Nattrass) does an absolutely beautiful job. She understands it’s not about the singer, it’s about the song. That’s the way I always approached it, too.”

Hanson, the youngest of seven siblings, was born and raised in Flin Flon. After cutting her teeth singing at church, she joined a rock band, Rampage, at the tender age of 16, which presented a bit of a problem to hotel owners hiring her and her cohorts.

“Between sets, they made me sit in the manager’s office because I wasn’t old enough to be in the bar,” she says. “Our big moment came when we opened for Chilliwack, when they played the Whitney Forum, the home of the (Flin Flon) Bombers. I thought I did terribly and was backstage crying when somebody told me not to worry, that I was a good singer and should keep at it.”

Hanson moved to Winnipeg in January 1987, after turning 18. To pay her rent, she worked as a cashier at Winnipeg Supply. At night, she fronted a group called Grace Face, which featured the talents of Darryl Gutheil, ex of Streetheart, and Dan Roberts, later of the Crash Test Dummies. Her second venture was a band dubbed 417, which was rechristened Jenerator, not long after Hanson signed on. (When a reporter remarks, “Jenerator, as in Jennifer?” Hanson replies yes, but that the name-swap wasn’t her idea. “I grew up in a house where you were not allowed to be vain, so it would never have occurred to me.”)

“Jenerator was crazy-busy. We played six nights a week, 48 weeks a year, and commanded between $4,000 and $6,000 per week,” she says. “But our overhead was huge. We had a truck, lights, sound equipment, a sound and lighting crew… I was netting in the neighbourhood of 25 grand a year but back then, 25 grand was pretty good money for a 20-year-old.”

In 1989, Hanson’s manager informed her the Jets were hosting tryouts for people interested in singing the national anthem prior to home games. She was comfortable with the idea — she and her sisters often sang O Canada before junior hockey games back in Flin Flon — so she arranged for an audition.

OK, forget about asking her what NHL contests have stuck with her the most, or which hockey stars she used to hobnob with at the dearly-departed Rorie Street Marble Club: the real question on everybody’s mind is whose idea was the form-fitting, scarlet-red cocktail dress that quickly became her calling card?

“When I got the job they said here’s some money, go buy some dresses. I assumed I knew what they wanted but I was wrong so yeah, the red dress was definitely their idea,” she says, taking a sip of her coffee.

In 1994, Hanson, who by then had added a jazz repertoire to her resumé, was taking in a Jets game in a private suite when in walked “these two big, bulky muscular guys.” Hanson learned they were in town doing promotional work for Q94.3 FM. After eavesdropping on a conversation the pair was having with the radio station’s morning team of Beau Fritzsche and Tom Milroy, she tapped one on the shoulder, stating, “I have to tell you… that is the worst Arnold Schwarzenegger accent I have ever heard, my entire life.”

To which her target, Henrik Christophersen replied, “Actually I’m from Norway, and that’s how I talk, all the time.”

The two hit it off immediately. But because Christophersen was based in Georgia, where he was training to be a commercial pilot, they maintained a long-distance relationship for the next two years, hooking up only when he visited Winnipeg, or when she appeared at nightclubs in the southern United States, with her lounge act. In 1997, Hanson learned she was pregnant. Upon hearing the news, Christophersen said, “Well, in that case, I think we should get married.”

“I think it was about a week later when I called him back and said, yeah, we better (get married) or my parents are going to be pissed,” she chuckles, noting their daughter Camilla was born in October 1997.

Hanson continued her touring schedule after relocating to Atlanta. But when the couple welcomed a second child to the fold in 1999, she had a decision to make. Calling herself a “full-on, attachment parent,” she readily admits she couldn’t figure out how to balance motherhood with a successful singing career.

“There are lots of people who can do it but I’m not one of them,” she goes on, flipping through her phone to show off a picture of her son William, now 18. “So what I ended up doing was hooking up with a couple different bands in the Atlanta area, so I could stay home and raise my kids, but continue singing at night, whenever the opportunity presented itself.”

In 2012, Hanson started feeling the itch to return to Canada. Sure, she had been visiting family in Winnipeg and Flin Flon every summer. And yes, she had become a familiar face at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival. But those stopovers only reinforced how much she missed living in the Great White North. (Hockey nuts will also recall Hanson was in town Oct. 22, 2016 to perform O Canada — “in a red dress more appropriate for somebody my age” — prior to the Heritage Classic alumni game, between the Jets and the Edmonton Oilers.)

“I’m Canadian and I needed to be in Winnipeg,” she explains. “Living here had been my dream since the first time I came to Winnipeg at the age of 10, and saw the skyline through the window of the Sheraton Hotel, while I was jumping up and down on the bed. Atlanta never felt like home. To me, Winnipeg is my ideal city.”

It turns out her son is a fan, too; not long after moving into their home in St. James, William and his mother were walking along the bank of nearby Sturgeon Creek when they realized they’d wandered onto private property. When Hanson remarked they probably shouldn’t be there and that they “were probably breaking the rules,” William took her by the hand and responded, “You know what’s nice about breaking the rules in Canada, Mom? Nobody’s going to shoot us.”

Since her return, Hanson has kept busy playing gigs at various spots around Winnipeg, such as the Palm Room at the Fort Garry Hotel and the Pony Corral on Grant Avenue. She’s also been booked for a fair number of corporate shows, as well as more intimate house concerts.

“I’m not doing too, too much, in my opinion, primarily because I’m still trying to figure out what’s best for me at this stage in my life,” she says. “When I ask myself what a 49-year-old singer is supposed to perform, I’ve kind of come to the conclusion the answer is all the things she wants to. I still want to sing standards, but I also want to sing rock and blues. I guess what I really want is to sing whatever’s good.”

On May 11, Hanson, along with the original lineup of Jenerator, will perform a 30th anniversary show at Cowboys, at the Windsor Park Inn, 1034 Elizabeth Rd. The band, which has been rehearsing for weeks, will offer up a mix of ‘80s nuggets made famous by the likes of Journey, Pat Benatar, Robert Palmer and Joan Jett, in addition to classics such as Sugarloaf’s Green Eyed Lady and the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash.

“It’s going to be a party, for sure. But because of my, ahem, advanced age, and because first set won’t start till 10 p.m. or so, I’m definitely going to have to take a nap that afternoon, if I intend to stick it out for the rest of the night.”

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David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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