Playoff pride, Jets joy Organizing, setting up, hosting and cleaning up after Winnipeg's epic Whiteout street parties is an exhausting, exhilarating and incredibly exciting all-day affair

It’s been only three weeks since the first Whiteout street party blew into Winnipeg and already it feels like the new normal for watching playoff hockey.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/05/2018 (1860 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s been only three weeks since the first Whiteout street party blew into Winnipeg and already it feels like the new normal for watching playoff hockey.

Jostling for position to see the action on the big screen. Queuing up for as long as it takes to get free Tim Hortons coffee or pay for a beer. High-fiving umpteen strangers every time the Jets score. And, since Tuesday night, craning your neck to see the Budweiser goal light pop off.

You may freeze your butt off in the name of fandom — after all, it was 4 C with a chilly north wind near game’s end Tuesday, but 10 or 20 years from now you’ll be able to say, “I was there.”

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Deb and Paul Brissette got into the spirit underneath their Airplane hats at the Jets Whiteout party.

On Tuesday night, more than 12,000 people showed up for the Winnipeg Whiteout Street Party on Donald Street, Graham Avenue and Smith Street.

The new and expanded setup feels roomier than earlier parties, which saw a combined 35,000 people attend in Round 1. Organizers say they like it that way — there’s more room to breathe and less chance of chaos.

The Free Press tagged along with planners Tuesday to see just how much work goes into holding a street party during the Jets’ dramatic come-from-behind 7-4 victory over the Nashville Predators, giving them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven second-round NHL playoff series.


9:45 a.m.

After the morning rush hour and almost seven hours before the gates officially open, construction crews start dragging road-closure signs on to Donald Street at Portage Avenue. The countdown until puck drop has begun.

Behind the signs, more workers begin assembling fencing against the backdrop of Bell MTS Place. Security guards, Winnipeg police and cadets mill around as semi-trailer trucks make their way down Donald loaded with production gear. Smith Street is barricaded with pylons and closure signs. A police officer helps divert traffic.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Workers wheel carts down Donald Street ahead of the street party.

10:45 a.m.

The first row of 155 portable toilets is set up against one side of the Millennium Library where the family friendly, alcohol-free zone will be located. Audio-visual equipment is unpacked and stacked high in black boxes, as crews begin setting up a stage where the Spitfire Kings will perform. The rowdy cover-loving band comprised of Royal Canadian Air Force members will later sing a version of Stompin’ Tom Connors’ The Hockey Song in what’s arguably the Most Canadian Moment of the Night.

11 a.m.

Fencing is erected along the sidewalks of Donald and Smith, which are closed to foot traffic. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, people manoeuvre past the fencing to shimmy down the sidewalks anyway.

The Impark lot beside the Metropolitan Entertainment Centre on Donald is filled with dozens of portable toilets. A few food trucks show up and begin preparing corn dogs, tater tots, lemonade, BDI ice cream — all the makings of a healthy playoff meal.

A trailer loaded with items from the Jets Gear store fills one parking lot corner, while beer tents are erected along Donald. Case after case of Budweiser and Bud Light are rolled in, and although a food services manager won’t say just how much beer is stocked, he offers an assurance that no fan will leave thirsty.

12:30 p.m.

A crane starts to lift a massive Budweiser goal light that stands about 10 metres tall into the middle of the intersection at Donald and Graham. The red light is brought in on its side, strapped to a large flatbed and towed by a semi-trailer. The operator manoeuvres it off the flatbed and plops it on the pavement where, in addition to signalling Jets goals, it’s destined to be a prime meeting place for friends to find one another in the massive crowd.

RYAN THORPE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Budweiser light is set up.

2:15 p.m.

Jason Smith, director of Smith Events, has been up since 8 a.m. making phone calls about tonight’s party, which he won’t leave until after midnight.

By the time he meets up with the Free Press, his Fitbit step count hovers near 13,000 (doctors recommend folks get at least 10,000 steps in per day). He loops around the site all day long, checking every nook and cranny.

Smith is no stranger to creating large-scale productions. He’s helped plan the local Juno Awards ceremonies, the NHL Heritage Classic at Investors Group Field, Grey Cup festivities and last summer’s Canada Games. But the Whiteout street parties are, logistically speaking, his most complicated event yet, he says.

“These are non-traditional venues (downtown streets) and we have to make it up pretty much every time as we go,” he says.

“Every time we grow, we engage more street area, which takes longer to set up. We come into contact with more local businesses. So we sometimes have conversations with them about how can we make it better next time so we impact their business less.”

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Terry Rempel, manager of King’s Services fencing division.

Smith stops to speak with Terry Rempel, manager of King’s Services fencing division. Rempel’s challenge today is putting up about 1,500 metres of makeshift walls.

“We brought every last drop (of fence) we had and it’s all physically downtown right now,” Rempel says.

Every angle of the street party needs to be fenced in — save for the family area — to stay within the allotted liquor and city permits. And some Winnipeg Transit stops and the police headquarters need to be accessible.

“This is nuts, because it’s a little bit here, a little bit there,” Rempel says of the fencing task, which is far more complex than the setup at traditional event venues such as The Forks.

Once the puck drops shortly after 7 p.m., Rempel plans to head home for a two-hour power nap before returning by about 10 p.m. to move the fence all over again.

3:20 p.m.

Kevin Donnelly, senior vice-president of venues and entertainment for True North Sports and Entertainment, is enjoying the calm before the Whiteout storm in his spacious office on Graham Avenue, just across the skywalk from Bell MTS Place.

RYAN THORPE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Crews set up the family-friendly portion of the Winnipeg Whiteout party.

Officials from True North, the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, Economic Development Winnipeg and the city began brainstorming as the NHL regular season wound down and it was clear the Jets were playoff-bound.

“It was bad karma to talk about the playoffs before you’re in the playoffs, so we dubbed it the ‘civic excitement committee,'” Donnelly says with a smirk.

The groups knew fans without game tickets would want to get together to watch the action. So they tossed around ideas for a location and other event details, rather than simply leave it to chance and have unplanned gatherings affecting traffic at Portage and Main, for example.

Once they got the green light from a long list of city committees, including the parking authority, fire and paramedic services, police, transit and public works, the organizing kicked into overdrive for the first street party on April 11. The capacity would be 6,000.

“We even debated, quite robustly, do we bother for a Round 1 (street party)? Do we need to do it for Round 1? Will people come out?” Donnelly recalls.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS True North's Kevin Donnelly, senior vice-president of venues and entertainment, got out from behind the desk to mingle on Tuesday.

Indeed they did, and each successive gathering has nearly doubled in size. Having frank conversations with street party planners from Nashville — home of the Jets’ second-round opponent Predators — was a huge help, Donnelly says.

“We knew that if Nashville could do it, we could do it better,” he says. “Bigger and better and sooner.”

The Whiteouts will probably be a tradition for many years to come, Donnelly says, pointing to the team’s youth and skill.

“I don’t think anyone’s in a hurry to say, ‘Let’s stop this.’ I think people are going, ‘How great can it become?'” he says.

4 p.m.

About 30 members of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ Watch, C.H.A.T. (Community Homeless Assistance Team) and the West End BIZ patrol meet in front of Browns Social House for a pre-game briefing from supervisor Michelle Kindrat.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Downtown Biz patrol members are briefed by their supervisor Michelle Kindrat.

As a diehard hockey fan herself — “Go Jets Go,” was among her daughter’s first utterances — this is easily one of her favourite shifts.

“(The street party) is good for our city, good for businesses and just good for our people, too, right?” she says.

Meantime, members of the BIZ hospitality team are corralling passersby on Portage Avenue to sign a banner marked “I Was Here” alongside Browns. The signage will be donated to the Jets after the playoff run.

“The momentum is just going. You feel it build,” host ambassador Gilles Dugas says, handing out Sharpies.

Mayor Brian Bowman grabs one to etch his name, then pose for photos. He just wrapped an interview with NBC Sports about Winnipeg’s rising potential.

“They’re profiling how both the city and the team are on the upswing and that type of marketing value for the city in U.S. markets and around the world is incredibly important to our efforts to really broadcast Winnipeg as a city that’s heading in the right direction,” Bowman says.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Fans sign a giant "I was Here" card.

“Not to mention what it does for the psyche of our city. I remember when the Jets left and it was so demoralizing for the city and the confidence. You know, while the Winnipeg Jets have been growing their success, so too has the city… and we’re taking it to new heights right now.”

5 p.m.

The Whiteout party’s gates are open and fans are flocking to the Budweiser light for selfies.

Security personnel check everyone’s oversized bag or purse, as CBC and Sportsnet teams ready the $100,000 Jimmy Jib camera — the sweeping arm that pans over the crowd to capture Winnipeg’s white glow for the world to see.

Ash Greyson and Ryan Dunlap stick out from the crowd like sore thumbs in their Preds’ jerseys and gold scarves. The Nashville fans flew here for games 3 and 4 and say Jets’ fans (including the mayor) have been “super friendly” so far, asking them to pose for photos as though they’re some type of rare creatures.

“Very welcoming. Way more welcoming than Pittsburgh,” Dunlap says, referring to fans of the Penguins, the team that beat them in last year’s Stanley Cup final.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Valery Grant takes a selfie in front of the Budweiser light.

Greyson was last in Winnipeg about 15 years ago and remembers the city as “very quaint and chill.”

The hockey parties in Winnipeg and Nashville have very similar energy, they say, though the friends didn’t want to miss a Great White Round.

“We like to go to games in every arena, but we wanted to experience the Whiteout and see that first-hand,” Dunlap says.

5:45 p.m.

Dayna Spiring, president and CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg, has become a frequent fixture on local newscasts lately, touting the Whiteout’s success and fans’ good behaviour.

But planning the street parties hasn’t been all fun and games. Asked about her fears when creating the massive events, Spiring blurts “safety” before the question is fully asked.

John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press Nashville Predators' fans Ash Greyson, left, and Ryan Dunlap are surrounded by cheering Winnipeg Jets' fans after Jets' Dustin Byfuglien (33) scores.

After a van driver killed 10 pedestrians and injured 16 others in Toronto last week, the worst possible outcomes are top of mind.

“That’s what keeps you up at night. You want to make sure people are safe. You want to make sure it’s a respectful place. You want to make sure that families who want to bring their kids have a place to do that and they feel comfortable, and that all Winnipeggers feel comfortable,” she says.

Each iteration of the party has been tweaked; Tuesday’s stage was moved to the southern end of Donald. New screens were installed on the east side of Garry and the north end of Smith to spread crowds in every direction, hopefully avoiding bunching and rowdiness.

As for fans migrating to Portage and Main at high points in the playoffs, that’s beyond the organizers’ purview, Spiring says.

“We know people have gone there and police are prepared for that. It’s not what we want. We want to try and contain this party and keep people in a place where we know we can keep them safe,” she says.

City police and security teams understandably won’t say how many officers are on duty. But they’ve publicly talked about the parked dump trucks at every street entrance to the Whiteout party, to block vehicles from getting through.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS City police patrol the area surrounding the street party.

“Those barriers were there before Toronto happened. You never want to think about that, but that’s the job of the police to think about that stuff,” Spiring says.

There would be no major incidents Tuesday, police reported afterwards, just “a few minor ones, including intoxication, but all in all a successful night,” a spokesman says in an email.

7 p.m.

It’s game time, but before the puck drops, thousands of cellphones are pointed at the sky.

Fans are waiting for two CF-18 fighter jets to fly overhead after Stacey Nattrass sings the Canadian anthem for a roaring crowd inside Bell MTS Place.

Capts. Patrick Shaver and Thegne Rathbone are coming from Cold Lake, Alta., a trip that takes about 90 minutes, with orders to fly past at 7:09 p.m.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A pair of CF-18 Hornets get the crowds going just before puck drop.

In a phone interview beforehand, Shaver says the jaunt is a first for both pilots — they’ve never flown over a sporting event before — but they were able to accommodate the flyover within their training hours.

“There’s cross-country flying as well as trying to hit a specific point at a certain time. That’s pretty relevant to what we do, so we can use this as training as well,” he says.

The aerial jets were far more exciting than the ones on the ice for fans up to the end of the first period, though the night was far from over.

At 7:20 p.m., a small group of paramedics and police head to Cityplace, responding to a medical call from an employee experiencing chest pains, and another group heads to police headquarters for a security briefing.

8 p.m.

The second group includes Kenny Boyce, the city’s manager of film and special events for the past 20 years.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS A fire crew parked their fire truck in a lane facing Donald Street.

Boyce helped plan street parties in the early 2000s under mayor Glen Murray. But those Get Together Downtown bashes on Portage Avenue had more of a concert feel with fewer moving parts, he says.

“They’re very different events and yet they held that same common goal — to bring people downtown and to celebrate and to find a reason to celebrate,” he says.

“This is like a large wedding every other weekend. It’s very complex, it’s got a lot of moving parts. And it’s a lot of co-ordination through the city departments… it’s not an easy process. It’s very challenging. But it’s so, so super-cool to see the results.”

One of Boyce’s favourite parts is seeing many downtown buildings papered with home-made Go Jets Go signs in their windows. Civic pride is “pretty high right now and that’s exciting.”

“Win or lose, we feel like we’ve already won,” Boyce says.

8:20 p.m.

After a shocking first period that ended with Winnipeg down 3-0, it’s starting to look like the Jets might have enough fuel for a comeback.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Banners are seen in windows all over the downtown area.

Some kids in the family area are practising their own shots on a hockey net, while their parents are glued to the big-league game on the screen.

Christine Martin brought her eight-year-old son Gavin, and Adrianne Otte came with her daughter Kayden, 6. Both moms say they wouldn’t have made the trek downtown with their tots if not for the cordoned-off family area.

“It’s better than being home (watching) on TV with friends. It’s more interactive and you have the energy of everyone else around and that’s powerful,” Martin says. “And the kids get to feel a part of something, like a moment in history.”

The moms had a few ideas for improvements, including adding more food vendors in the family area, plus doing bag checks as folks enter that section, too (security checked only the bags of people heading into the main party Tuesday).

Barb Sears and Ken Apostle laid out a blanket on the grass in the family section to watch the game.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Proud Jets fans at the party.

“It’s more fun and to see all the enthusiasm with the kids and the parents, that’s the part I like,” Sears says of the family section.

“I like that anybody and everybody’s a fan and anybody can show up. It’s all walks of life, you know what I mean? Rich, poor, whatever. You’re a fan and you’re welcome here and away we go.”

9:55 p.m.

To say the crowd goes wild as the clock ticks down on a stunning, improbable 7-4 Jets victory would be a gross understatement.

Wafts of smoke from a soon-to-be-legal plant and the irresistible mini doughnuts fill the air as DJ Co-op starts spinning tunes at the southern stage on Donald. The idea is to attract crowds to one corner of the party so cleanup crews can tackle the rest, says Smith, the event producer.

The DJ points out that the Jets have won each game where there has been a Whiteout street party… so that must be the key ingredient, right? Knock on wood.

John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press Crews clean up the Jimmy Jib camera following the game.

Co-op will finish his set with the same song he’s played last at each fete: Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing.

10:25 p.m.

As the bass beats thump, members of True North and the BIZ’s enviro cleaning teams, along with six members of Siloam Mission’s M.O.S.T. (Mission Off The Streets Team) are cleaning the streets like there’s no tomorrow (or at least no second street party less than two days away). They sweep up trash and use leaf blowers to move garbage toward dumpsters near the arena.

Steve Hughes, the BIZ’s manager of cleanliness, maintenance and placemaking, moved here from England in 2010 wanting to start fresh and give back in a new country with his family. Suffice to say, this party is unlike anything he’s seen before in Winnipeg.

By about 10:40 p.m., the music goes quiet and crews start dismantling the stage and screens.

In the 11 o’clock hour, Smith is still doing loops around the whole site, already suggesting tweaks for Thursday’s edition, such as where to put more fence.

Smith checks his phone to see how many calls he’s made today: 94. That’s pretty low compared to previous game days, he says. He had taken about 30,000 steps by midnight.

John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press Crews clean up the portable toilets following the party.

12:05 a.m.

One of the last pieces to get packed up is the Budweiser light. The crane see-saws the awkward structure back and forth for at least 20 minutes before setting it on its side on the flatbed. It will be stored until Thursday morning, when the whole thing happens again.

By 1 a.m., Donald, Graham and Smith are scheduled to reopen, though crews miss that deadline by a few minutes after the time-consuming goal-light ordeal.

As many of the party pinnings are left in place as possible, including fencing and portable toilets. The gates open Thursday starting at 6 p.m. (the game starts at 8:30). Next time there will be donation bins for Winnipeg Harvest onsite and likely many more attendees ready to start their weekends a little bit early.

“From an event producer’s perspective, you hope that people come and have a good time and they don’t really notice the setup,” Smith says. “If you’ve done a good job, they’re not worried about any of the stuff around them. They’re just able to have a good time.”

— With files from Ryan Thorpe

John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press

Twitter: @_jessbu


Updated on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 9:49 PM CDT: Updates start time for Thursday's street party

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