The city changed.
That may not seem like much of an observation for those of us who witnessed first-hand as Winnipeg drenched itself in white and screamed and fist-pumped our way through the 39 days of NHL playoff hockey that came abruptly to a halt this past weekend when the local side was eliminated by a Cinderella with a slightly larger shoe size. But the ways in which we changed might shock a few people.
For those five weeks and four days, we became a city where people were unafraid to go downtown. And, we’re a city that is a bit prouder of itself now, a bit less likely to complain and more likely to celebrate all that is good about our community. Those are not small things.
As an adopted son, I have always known Winnipeg to be a great place to work and live. I met my wife here, raised children here and forged a fantastic career here. I did it all without spending a third of my waking hours commuting or carrying a mortgage the size of the annual GDP of a developing country, as is the case for many of my friends in bigger cities.
The food here is as good as any city in the country, but not quite as expensive. The art, music and overall cultural life is as vibrant, perhaps a bit more vibrant, than other cities, largely because we are so geographically isolated. When it’s eight hours by car to the next largest city, you have to learn to satiate and entertain yourselves.
But it’s also a place where a suffocating inferiority complex is present in nearly every conversation about the city. Winnipeggers criticize their city in ways nearly unmatched in this country, lamenting the potholes and the panhandlers and the property taxes with an almost religious fervour. In fact, Winnipeggers only defend Winnipeg when someone else in some other part of the country has the temerity to criticize us.
Bad-mouthing the city is a privilege for those who live here; all other detractors need not apply.
How exactly did the Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League change that mindset? Largely by putting aside the bad and ugly of professional sports, and amplifying all that is good about it.
NHL hockey is a mixed blessing. Strip away all the emotional stuff, and you have an attraction where people pay thousands of dollars per year to enter a building that was heavily subsidized by taxpayers for the privilege of cheering on a team of multimillionaires while eating $10 hotdogs, drinking $10 beers and wearing $200 replica jerseys.
It’s not hard to make the case that the Jets can be more of an economic burden than an economic boon, an activity for elites or those who have more money than sense. In a city where there is so much poverty and so many civic challenges, it all borders on the perverse.
Professional sports can, however, be a force for good.
It can unite and engage a city in ways that almost no other activity or force can. When it is good, pro sports mobilizes people, focuses our civic attention and helps us flex our collective community spirit. Particularly if the owners of the team make the effort to ensure that as many people as possible get to take in the experience.
Just as it is uncertain whether the Jets will ever have a season like this again, it is unclear whether the Whiteout street parties that transformed downtown Winnipeg into the world’s biggest wedding social will ever be repeated. The Jets are, at their core, an extremely talented, young, dynamic squad that should have every opportunity to repeat and even exceed the success they enjoyed this year. And if they do, we should hope that the street parties are also repeated.
In those quickly mounted, free-to-attend street parties, True North Sports and Entertainment and the city and all the public agencies and private corporations that paid for portable toilets and big screen televisions and extra security helped democratize professional hockey in ways almost unprecedented on this continent.
Winnipeg’s ostentatious, street-level show of force grabbed fans in other NHL cities by the collars of their replica jerseys and shook them à la Byfuglien like Beanie Babies, establishing an entirely new definition for the term "hockey-mad city." Never before in any NHL city has the crowd outside the arena exceeded the crowd inside. That is a standard set by this city that will likely never be matched by any other city.
Go ahead. We dare you.
And it’s not just that everyone wore white and waved white towels. It was that somehow we used the most bland and uninteresting of all colours to get our freak on. Here’s to the milkman, the Pope, the bearded bride, the Hollywood serial killers, the snow-white Droogs, the body-paint masochists and all the rest of you who dug up bathrobes, pyjamas, overalls and white wigs. You were somehow hideous and beautiful at the same time.
Before they bolted for Arizona, the previous incarnation of the Jets was a source of frustration and, at times, embarrassment. There were some good teams, but they always fell to teams from cities that seemed larger, more successful, more complete. Our second-rate team seemed to reinforce the idea that Winnipeg was a second-rate community.
When the Jets returned, it was an opportunity to demonstrate two important points: first, that we survived the previous loss of our team just fine, thank you; and second, that it was possible to combine the words "winner" and "Winnipeg" in the same sentence.
Now that the team is an unqualified success, many in the city can rightly lay claim to a new sense of pride and accomplishment. The Jets haven’t balanced the provincial budget, fixed all the potholes, reduced emergency-room wait times, eliminated poverty or eradicated the summer mosquito infestation. But they’ve put a bit more wind in everyone’s sails, changed more than a few minds about the value of a dynamic downtown, and eased Winnipeg’s traditional appetite for civic self-flagellation.
Add it all together, and there is one inescapable conclusion. We are changed.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.