Young Jets fan’s amazing journey

Family attending tonight's tilt with special jersey


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SAN JOSE, Calif. — We forget, sometimes, about just how much sport can connect us. How it can break down boundaries, teach lifelong lessons and leave lasting memories. How it can motivate and inspire. How it can bring out the best in all of us, sometimes in ways we never imagine.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/01/2018 (1954 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — We forget, sometimes, about just how much sport can connect us. How it can break down boundaries, teach lifelong lessons and leave lasting memories. How it can motivate and inspire. How it can bring out the best in all of us, sometimes in ways we never imagine.

And so we bring you to the SAP Center here in the beautiful Bay Area, site of tonight’s NHL game between the Winnipeg Jets and San Jose Sharks. Sure, they’ll drop the puck and play a hockey game here. And yes, the results will matter in the scope of the standings as both teams continue to make strong playoff pushes.

But there will be something much bigger going on in the rink as worlds collide in a most incredible way.

SUPPLIED Last winter Conor was in Winnipeg and got to meet his favourite player, Nikolaj Ehlers.

Brian Grieb, 53, is a bartender who has lived in San Francisco since 1988. But his fandom for the Jets dates back to their World Hockey Association days, when he was a young boy growing up in Pennsylvania. It only grew bigger when they won the Avco Cup in 1979, then joined the NHL a year later. Grieb was hooked. Who cared if they played in some far-flung city in another country he’d never visited?

“I was fascinated by expansion teams. And since they’d won the WHA championship coming in I said ‘That’s gotta be my team,’” Grieb told the Free Press on Monday.

“I jumped on the bandwagon and was too dumb to jump off.”

Grieb’s family became fans, too, and their hearts swelled when the Jets returned to the NHL in 2011.

“I always kept the torch, hoping they’d come back. I never thought it would happen. When they came back I was really able to follow them,” said Grieb, who began interacting with fellow Jets fans through Twitter, regularly tuned into game broadcasts through the internet and satellite radio and even began calling in post-game shows offering his two cents worth.

His wife, Michelle, who comes from Ireland, and their two sons, Conor and Colm, were on board. But life took a devastating turn just months later when Conor, at the tender age of four, was found to have a cancerous tumour on his kidney. It was stage four. Immediate surgery was needed, and his life was very much on the line.

As the Grieb family spent months of terrifying days and nights at the hospital, they were buoyed by a community of strangers who offered an outpouring of support. They were Jets fans, just like Grieb. They sent well-wishes through Twitter and Facebook, and mailed care packages containing Jets memorabilia. Andrew Paterson of TSN 1290 helped rally the troops.

“That kept me going. That really saved me,” said Grieb. “So many people approached us. So many people who come here to the Bay Area come and see us. It’s amazing.”

SUPPLIED Conor and his family, dad Brian Grieb and mom Michelle with Winnipeg Jets' Michael Hutchinson.

Most amazing was the fact Conor, now nine, was eventually deemed cancer-free following surgery, three weeks of intense radiation and 30 chemotherapy treatments. It’s now been five years.

“They’re still doing scans and stuff. It’s a never-ending battle because of the damage that chemo and radiation can do to your body,” said Grieb.

The Grieb family made their first trip to Winnipeg last winter after winning a TSN 1290 fan contest — in which many online followers nominated them. Conor got to meet his favourite player, Nikolaj Ehlers, and his favourite goalie, Michael Hutchinson — who gave them a post-game tour of the Jets’ dressing room. They also got to meet face to face with many of the local fans who helped them in their darkest hours.

Conor’s first hockey game was seeing the Ontario Reign, then of the ECHL, playing at home in California. They were affiliated with the Jets at the time, and Hutchinson was on the team.

Connor became a fan watching him rise through the AHL and then the NHL.

Conor is now the assistant captain and first-line centre for his team, the San Francisco Sabercats. Brother Colm, 11, also plays hockey.

Grieb helps coach both teams, although he refers to himself more as a “door opener.”

“My joke is that hockey has ruined my Winnipeg Jets experience because my kids are always playing,” said Grieb. “I’m the coach that can’t skate backwards.”

Grieb loves the passion among Jets fans but believes the Twitter debates about the team can get a little out of hand at times. He often tries to be the online mediator, saying his own life has taught him not to sweat the small stuff.

SUPPLIED Conor was diagnosed at age four with stage four cancer.

“Life’s too short,” he said. “A lot of those people who are the mean people on Twitter, when they found out what happened to my son they were as nice as anybody else.”

Grieb has attended every Jets game in San Jose since their return to the NHL but tonight will be the most special one. Grieb and his family are tasked with holding the jersey of a late Jets fan, a jersey that will be in the building as part of a 31-city tour.

Carter Jansen was just 21 when he was killed in a car crash in May 2016 while living in the small community of Beechy, Sask. His vehicle was struck by a semi-trailer about 200 kilometres west of Regina.

A Winnipeg friend he’d met years earlier while playing Xbox video games online, Graeme Fortlage, used the power of social media to arrange to have a Jets jersey with “Carter” stitched on the back attend a game in every NHL city. The two men had planned to attend the 2016 Jets home opener, only to have tragedy make that impossible.

As part of the ongoing tribute, photos are taken and shared online, autographs from each home team’s captain are being added and the end result will ultimately make its way to Jansen’s grieving family. The hashtag #CartersJersey on Twitter displays many of the stops for the travelling memorial, which hits San Jose tonight. Grieb will be draping the special jersey over a seat in Carter’s honour.

“The jersey has a picture on every seat in every arena in the NHL,” said Grieb.

The Grieb family hopes to make another trip to Winnipeg in the near future — perhaps to experience the famous “whiteout” during a playoff game.

“I don’t think their chances are great of going to the Stanley Cup this year, but I think their chances of going to the playoffs are pretty deep,” said Grieb. “It seems like they all love playing in Winnipeg, which is great with all the Winnipeg hate going on. They seem like a bunch of guys who love living in Winnipeg and playing hockey there. And players will be saying ‘I want to play in that city. I want to win.’”

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

SUPPLIED Conor is now the assistant captain and first-line centre for his team, the San Francisco Sabercats, but more importantly, he is cancer free.
Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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