Bomber fans finally ‘get to see the banner go up’
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/08/2021 (484 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Rum Hut is back, though as any Bomber fan will say, the Rum Hut never truly leaves, it simply waits. Just like the sticky concrete, and the thunderous noise and the crush of fans shuffling through the stadium’s guts, a river of blue jerseys making their way between their seats and somewhere, or someone, else.
It took a longer wait than usual to get those things back. A longer wait, a lot more stress and then, at the end, only the most sweeping public health mission of our era. But now, all these months later, Manitoba has room to stretch out and relax, and to bring its largest and loudest sports spectacle back.
How surreal, to once again get lost in a sea of people. Fingers crossed that this gift can last.
Because fans know it as a gift now, even more than they did before. On Thursday night, as they poured into IG Field, they shone the magic of the moment from their eyes like a light. They marvelled to see such a vast number of people, the largest gathering in Manitoba since COVID-19 first sent us splintering apart.
Many fans said they wouldn’t have come, had it not been for the fact that everyone in attendance had to be fully vaccinated. In the days leading up to the game, Don McMaster said as much to his daughter: at age 90, he told her, “I’ve made it this far, so why would I take the risk?”
McMaster has been coming to Bombers games for his whole life. He remembers the years before the Second World War, when his father took him to the old Osborne Stadium to watch star running back Fritz Hanson flash over the field. When he grew up, he took his kids, and when they grew up, they took him.
At first, the idea of going to this game made Don’s daughter, Laura McMaster, anxious. She’s a high school teacher, she said, “so you can imagine what my last year was like.” But when she heard that everyone in the stands had to be vaccinated, she was intrigued. She went to her dad and asked what he thought.
“He perked right up,” she said, with a laugh, and next thing you know, they had tickets.
It was a big step for them, Laura said. The whole family had been so careful. Her parents spent the pandemic at their rural home, where Don works as an artist and he and his wife tend some of the prettiest cross-country ski trails and natural wildgrass prairie in Manitoba; Laura similarly took care to stay safe at home.
Now, about an hour before kickoff on Thursday night, Laura was pushing her father in a wheelchair, to make it easier for him to make his way through the massive throng of people. They were eager to get to their seats, if a little bit anxious. They wouldn’t have stepped out into the world like this for just anything.
“Sooner or later, you have to rip off the Band-Aid, and it has to be something worth ripping it off for,” she said. “We finally won the Grey Cup, and we’re going to get to see the banner go up. That felt worth it — and to do it with Dad.”
That is a story repeated over and over in the stands and in front of the Rum Hut, which was packed full and buzzing. People went, because they wanted to be there together, and in the worst grips of COVID-19, it was so hard to imagine how scenes like that would ever happen again.
This league, and this team, it’s not really about the games. It has always been about the tradition.
One day before the game, I invited fans to tell me who they were going with, and how they were feeling. The stories poured in: a husband and wife were going for their first date since March 2020. Three generations of dads from one family were renewing their tradition. One young man was going with seven buddies.
The parents of an infant son hesitated a little, wondering if they should go to an event with so many people: that was “weighing heavily on us,” the father wrote, but what’s the point of being fully vaccinated unless you can celebrate it at least a little? So they went, and so did nearly 30,000 other people.
To some, the crowd did end up being too much for comfort. Halfway through the game, one friend — a lifelong Bomber diehard — texted to say she was leaving early: “a little too freaked out,” she wrote. “System overload. Felt good to do something I had done pre-COVID, but we are still so deeply IN COVID.
“Happy I went. Hope being sardines in the halls and in the seats doesn’t cost me.”
Others had a chance to reflect on how hard they had worked for this moment. In the stands, Terry Klassen and his wife, Grace Dueck, soaked in the incredible scene, and noted the joyful mood in the crowd: “Just loving it,” Klassen texted, near the half. “A celebratory mood all around us.”
The couple has been to many games in their time: once, before they were married, Dueck took Klassen to a game on a Sadie Hawkins date. That night, a tipsy fan leaned in to tell Klassen that he should “marry that girl” because she had beautiful eyes. The advice held up: the couple marked their 40th anniversary in July.
To Dueck, it wasn’t strange to be around such a crowd on Thursday night: she’d become used to it, working as a navigator at the RBC vaccination supersite. In fact, “I may have even seen some of these people there,” she said with a laugh, as she nodded towards the throng of people pouring into the stadium.
So in a way, Thursday night’s game was the prize for the work that Dueck and so many others had put in, to put shots in the arms of Manitobans. She and Klassen felt safe, they said, because they know that work and they trust in the science: “I think it’s beautiful,” Dueck said.
It felt like normal, Klassen said. A new normal, maybe, but different again than the one we’ve lived for the last 18 months. For now, that’s not just enough, but that’s all we could hope for. Something Manitoba earned when they hunkered down, and then lined up for the shot: a coming together, after those long months apart.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.