December 17, 2018

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All eyes on Winnipeg

Jets success, fans' passion puts Heart of the Continent at centre of national conversation

<p>Scott Oake at a recent Whiteout street party. He says the city is as crazy as it looks on TV.</p>

CBC

Scott Oake at a recent Whiteout street party. He says the city is as crazy as it looks on TV.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/5/2018 (215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It could be argued Winnipeg is currently in the national spotlight more than at any time in recent memory — at least not since the city has found itself at the mercy of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

And that was bad news.

But with the recent Stanley Cup playoff run of the Winnipeg Jets, the focus has been on a rising NHL team and its passionate fans.

Every other night, the Jets and their throng of white-clad supporters have been at the forefront, in prime time, soaking up lavish attention from across North America. The belle of the ball.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/5/2018 (215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It could be argued Winnipeg is currently in the national spotlight more than at any time in recent memory — at least not since the city has found itself at the mercy of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

And that was bad news.

But with the recent Stanley Cup playoff run of the Winnipeg Jets, the focus has been on a rising NHL team and its passionate fans.

Every other night, the Jets and their throng of white-clad supporters have been at the forefront, in prime time, soaking up lavish attention from across North America. The belle of the ball.

Just ask long-time Hockey Night in Canada host Scott Oake, a Winnipegger, who has spent a few Jets home playoff games wading through "his people" among the thousands who gather to boisterously celebrate Whiteout street parties next to Bell MTS Place.

"Everywhere I’ve gone on the road, it’s an often asked question, ‘Is it as crazy as it looks like in Winnipeg?’ The answer is, ‘Yes,’" Oake says. "I cannot recall this excitement over anything in Winnipeg in my time here. It’s galvanized the city and province and it’s special.

"It’s stunning, really. Winnipeg is finally getting its due. That’s how I look at it."

Fair enough. But here are some questions: how does all this look to outsiders who otherwise rarely give Winnipeg a second thought — or to those outside of the country who couldn’t find the city on a map?

Does it mean anything outside of some good, temporary publicity? What does this outpouring of unabashed passion for a hockey team say about residents? And, more importantly, should Winnipeggers even care what anybody else thinks?

To find some answers the Free Press talked to an eclectic group of observers — a comedian, a TV broadcaster, a musician and venerable sports writer — to get their thoughts on one of the rarest of occurrences: Winnipeg getting a closeup.

John B. Duff, a local comic and co-founder of Oddblock Comedy Festival, has been a Jets fan "since he could breathe." So it’s not lost on him the city has galvanized around a group of young men who — outside of the NHL season — don’t even live here.

"We’re cheering on millionaire strangers," he says. "I mean, I’m 50. It’s bizarre the level of idolatry I have for 20-year-old (Jets winger) Patrik Laine. It’s absurd."

<p>John B. Duff inside Keener Jerseys on Portage Avenue. The local comedian says Winnipeg is often the butt of the joke and one of the reasons fans are puffing out their chests now.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

John B. Duff inside Keener Jerseys on Portage Avenue. The local comedian says Winnipeg is often the butt of the joke and one of the reasons fans are puffing out their chests now.

Duff has lived through the dark days: the Jets sucking, the Jets getting owned by the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, the Jets leaving town in the mid-1990s. So to see the team ascending to the league’s elite level, upon returning, is a reality he considers surreal, if not a little, well, comical.

"There’s humour there in that, as Winnipeggers, we just s—- on ourselves so much," says Duff, who coincidentally works for a local shop, Keener Jerseys, that made all the Nashville Predators jerseys this year. "We’re so self-deprecating. We almost don’t believe we deserve good things. The city is so rich and full of arts and culture... but people just don’t think about that.

"Because we’re the butt of the joke, right?" he says. "No one is saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got two weeks off next June, we gotta go to Winnipeg.’

"I think that’s why the fan base becomes so rabid, because this is a grand-scale validation. The NHL has finally come back and we’re not just in it, we’re in it to win it, right now. That just puffs our chests out and makes us feel greater than we’ve ever felt before."

To be sure, it’s not just all the white noise being generated in or outside the downtown arena. It’s the level of commitment expressed by Jets fans. There’s faces painted white. A crew of young men wearing vintage, powder blue HNIC jackets. A queen, accompanied by royal guards. Princess Leia with storm troopers. And to date, a pair of actual brides going from wedding directly to a Whiteout.

Jason Tait thinks that nice, but...

"It’s just sports," he says. "I don’t think it will have a huge rush of tourists coming into the city if we win the Cup, which we probably will. What it does do is unify the city across all socio-economic groups. That’s an important thing. We could have great residuals from that."

“Who cares what anybody else thinks. Really. Come on. It’s a vibrant, passionate hockey city. What anybody else thinks about it, I would tell them to jump in a non-flooding river." – Michael Farber

Tait served as the drummer for the Weakerthans — a Winnipeg-based, Juno-nominated indie band now on hiatus — perhaps best known for the lyric, "I hate Winnipeg" from the song, One Great City!

Of course, it’s more love/hate, Tait concedes, and it’s an attitude found in any city, anywhere in the world.

Tait, who is now touring North America with Toronto-based singer Bahamas (a.k.a. Afie Jurvanen), isn’t really concerned what outsiders think about his hometown.

"Generally speaking," says Tait, when reached between gigs in Florida this week, "if someone speaks negatively about Winnipeg as soon as you meet them, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve probably never been to the city."

In Tait’s world, however, the subject of the Jets current notoriety is a non-issue. Mention Winnipeg, and the subject will turn to accomplished artists the city produces — such as Sarah Johnson or Marcel Dzama — or the possible return of the Weakerthans.

He believes a better public transit system and more bike lanes would have more impact on Winnipeg than a successful hockey team.

Weakerthans’ drummer Jason Tait</p>

Weakerthans’ drummer Jason Tait

Don’t misunderstand, though. Tait’s father had Jets season tickets "dating back to the WHA days." He’s a fan, although perhaps not as big as his six-year-old son, Salvador, who already has memorized all the players’ names.

Tait happened to be in Nashville for a gig last week, and he snagged a ticket to Game 7 of the second-round Predators-Jets series. He wore white amongst a sea of mustard-clad Preds faithful, cheering the Jets to a historic victory.

Besides, Tait says there is one direct correlation between Winnipeg’s arts/music scene and the Jets. Earlier this year, Jets captain Blake Wheeler told reporters many of the team’s players fly "under the radar."

It’s true, Tait says, and it’s not a bad thing.

"Flying under the radar can really create a fertile ground for the artistic community," the drummer says. "Those situations tend to bring out more honesty in your work, doing exactly what you’re doing and not following templates of success of other people. It lends itself to more original creativity.

"There’s not so much of a global focus on your city, so you’re just left to your own devices. As opposed to, ‘Oh, well, Arcade Fire is really popular. We better write a record that sounds like that’ — which happens a little more in larger cities."

Hence the art is more organic, Tait says. More authentic.

Curiously, that’s exactly how Michael Farber — one of the deans of North American sports writing — describes the Jets themselves.

"You’re looking at a smaller city, and it’s easier to have shared values and shared expectations," says Farber, who for 20 years was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. "If the L.A. Kings are in the final... L.A. is a big place and (many people) may not like hockey. The Kings aren’t part of the fabric in Los Angeles. The only fabric of Los Angeles I know is spandex. So it matters more (in Winnipeg) because it ties people into the community.

"What we’re seeing with the Jets is an expression of Winnipeg’s best self," says Farber, who still contributes to TSN and NBC. "Not only are they winning games — and everybody likes to think of themselves as a winner — it’s the way the Jets are playing; with such brio, with such commitment, with such authenticity. They’re playing a relentless, proud brand of hockey.

"If you look in a mirror and you want to look at your best self, this is what you want to see."

As for who that reflection looks to anyone outside? Farber practically snorts.

"This is about you," he says. "Who cares what anybody else thinks. Really. Come on. It’s a vibrant, passionate hockey city. What anybody else thinks about it, I would tell them to jump in a non-flooding river.

Sports writer Michael Farber.</p>

Sports writer Michael Farber.

"Winnipeg fans should take their hockey IQ and apply it to everything else and not be bothered by things — or flattered. Just go about your business and enjoy what’s unfolding."

Tait agrees.

"This is for us, right now," he says. "This isn’t for the rest of the world."

Still, Oake believes whatever the perception, the image is only positive.

"I don’t think Winnipeg has ever looked this good," he says. "It’s relishing its time in the spotlight. And I think Winnipeg has responded accordingly. Winnipeg sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s often the brunt of jokes. But it’s no joke right now.

"I think people will always remember how special the celebrations for the playoffs were. What else in Winnipeg is going to get 20,000 people downtown — without a ticket for the game? And another 15,000 inside the building. So I think we’ll always remember this as a special time it’s been."

Duff, meanwhile, believes the rest of the hockey world is seeing a fan base experiencing the healing of a once-broken heart on live TV.

"They know how horrible it was to have lost that team and what it did to us," he says of the original franchise moving to Arizona in 1996. The former Atlanta Thrashers franchise was moved to Winnipeg in 2011, and revived the Jets name.

"It’s like getting a parent back from the dead. You know, ‘My mom died. Oh, now my mom’s back... and she’s going to win the Stanley Cup.’ It has a surreal tone to it."

So the days of Winnipeg being the butt of jokes are over? Dream on.

There will still be jokes, the comic says, just maybe with an addendum now.

"Oh, it’s just Winnipeg," Duff says. "But as least they have hockey."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @randyturner15

Randy Turner

Randy Turner
Reporter

Randy Turner has spent much of his journalistic career on the road. A lot of roads. Dirt roads, snow-packed roads, U.S. interstates and foreign highways. In other words, he’s got a lot of kilometres on the odometer, if you know what we mean.

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History

Updated on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 at 7:48 AM CDT: Corrects typos

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