December 10, 2019

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A family affair

The Jets' 2011 return, with an able assist from Twitter, brought select group of fans together in ways few could imagine. For them, the Winnipeg franchise has become...

On the first Saturday night of the National Hockey League’s 2018-19 regular season, a dozen people have gathered in Karl and Marie Mielke’s Windsor Park rec room to watch the Winnipeg Jets take on their Central Division foes, the Dallas Stars.

While everybody present appears to be lifelong chums, hugging one another as they came downstairs, taking time to inquire how their kids are or how their week at work went, that doesn’t turn out to be the case at all. As we quickly learn, it wasn’t so long ago the only things most of them had in common were an undying affection for the Jets and a strong presence on social media.

“Wedding socials, bowling fundraisers, baby showers; pretty much any reason we can come up with to be in the same room works for us." And Jets games, of course. (Supplied photo)</p>

“Wedding socials, bowling fundraisers, baby showers; pretty much any reason we can come up with to be in the same room works for us." And Jets games, of course. (Supplied photo)

"We call ourselves the Jetsfam, ‘fam’ being short for family, and the majority of us, aside from people like Karl and Marie who were already married, ‘met’ on Twitter," Michelle Raposo explains, inviting a reporter to grab a plate and dive into the gang’s pre-game, potluck meal, which consists of hot wings, pork ribs, Swedish meatballs and — "don’t mind if I do" — bacon-wrapped water chestnuts.

"It’s weird but incredible at the same time," pipes in Erin Myers who like her namesake, Jets defenseman Tyler Myers, sports the number 57 on the back of her blue home jersey. "In some ways it’s friendship in the modern age, meeting on social media. But for me it goes beyond just being Jets fans. Yes, the Jets are what brought us together in the first place but friendship is what’s keeping us together."

 


 

Let’s back things up a bit to May 31, 2011, a date Jetsfam members laughingly refer to as Jetsmas, a play on Christmas. That morning, moments after Mark Chipman, the chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment, announced the Atlanta Thrashers would be relocating to Manitoba’s capital for the start of the 2011-12 NHL campaign, thousands of Winnipeggers, Myers included, took to Twitter to share the good news and celebrate online.

Myers, who was 12 and "just getting into hockey" when the first incarnation of the NHL Jets departed for Arizona in 1996, continued posting about the team on Twitter once the season kicked in, commenting on everything from the previous night’s officiating to cheeky chants — "Crosby’s better!" — emanating from the hometown faithful. Before long, she was dutifully following other Jets devotees on Twitter, folks with handles such as @MrsR_Jetsfan, @lilJETSlover and @EvandersCane, and vice versa.

Cheering crowds greeted the news of the Jets' return to Winnipeg in 2011. (Ken Gigliotti / Free Press files)</p>

Cheering crowds greeted the news of the Jets' return to Winnipeg in 2011. (Ken Gigliotti / Free Press files)

In March 2013, during the club’s second season, Myers was stuck at work prior to a televised away game. Toward the end of her shift, she posted a tweet stating she intended to head downtown to watch that night’s game in a bar, adding if anybody in the Twitter-verse wanted to join her, they’d be more than welcome. Within seconds, a woman named Steph McLaughlin responded, "You betcha."

"She said she was at Tavern United (Bell MTS Place) and to come on down," Myers says. "That was our first time meeting and very quickly we realized we had a ton in common. Steph, who I now count among my very best friends, ended up ‘introducing’ me to other people she knew from Twitter (and) once I found one, I found two and it all kind of snowballed from there."

In May 2014, following a year of communicating with one another exclusively through their mobile devices, Myers, McLaughlin and eight others agreed it was time everybody met in person. One person volunteered to host a backyard barbecue, during which everybody got along famously; so much so two of the people who met at that initial get-together started dating, and are now the proud parents of two pint-sized Jets fans.

Ramping it up

One of Don Livingston’s duties as a ramp attendant at Bell MTS Place during Winnipeg Jets home games is to walk up and down the stairs of his section at least three times each period, ensuring that everything’s copacetic.

During one game last season he was performing that precise task when he noticed a trail of popcorn starting at the bottom stair, and continuing to the second row from the top. Tracing the path, he spotted a young girl he took to be seven or eight years old sitting next to her father, staring into an empty popcorn box.

One of Don Livingston’s duties as a ramp attendant at Bell MTS Place during Winnipeg Jets home games is to walk up and down the stairs of his section at least three times each period, ensuring that everything’s copacetic.

During one game last season he was performing that precise task when he noticed a trail of popcorn starting at the bottom stair, and continuing to the second row from the top. Tracing the path, he spotted a young girl he took to be seven or eight years old sitting next to her father, staring into an empty popcorn box.

“The dad apologized for the mess and I said ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll get somebody to clean it up,’” Livingston says. “But because I felt bad for his daughter I raced back downstairs to the concession booth and told one of the gals there I needed a new box of popcorn, fast. When I brought it to the girl her dad was like, ‘Thanks so much, but you didn’t have to do that,’ to which I replied, ‘Hey, when you’re in my section, I want to be sure you’re enjoying yourself.’”

The same way hockey fans such as Michelle Raposo and Erin Myers have forged new friendships since the return of the Jets, so too have people who work at the downtown rink.

On the first night of the new campaign, Livingston found himself on the main level of the arena after spending the previous five seasons tending to fans in sections 308 and 309 of the upper bowl. Because he was concerned people in his old section might be wondering where he was, the first opportunity he had he raced upstairs to say hi to his “regulars,” letting them know he was still around, just elsewhere in the building.

“The thing is, you see a lot of the same faces, game in game out, and for sure you get to know quite a few fans on a personal level,” Livingston says. “There’s the fun stuff, like when a couple in your section is expecting and then they show up the next season with their new baby. But there’s the sad stuff, too. Like if somebody has been having health issues and then they miss six or seven (games). You definitely start to worry and the next time you see them, you give them a hug and let them know you’ve been thinking of them.”

- David Sanderson 

By the time the 2014-15 NHL playoffs rolled around, the "family" had expanded to almost 40 members, Myers says. And because the Jets had qualified for the postseason for the first time since their return to Winnipeg, a second, much larger Jetsfam meet-up was scheduled at the Metropolitan Entertainment Centre, directly across the street from Bell MTS Place, to coincide with Game 3 of the club’s first-round series versus the Anaheim Ducks.

"That was the first time I met everybody face-to-face," says Raposo, a hair stylist. "I never have a problem talking to people I don’t know — that’s a big part of my job — but because I was already familiar with practically everybody there because of their Twitter feeds, it did feel a bit like I knew them already."

Ever since that gathering at the Met, the Jetsfam, which includes honourary members in Australia, Europe and the United States (the night we hooked up with them, the group was putting the final touches on a care package consisting of souvenirs tied to last season’s lengthy playoff run for a Jets fan in San Francisco), hasn’t depended exclusively on Jets games as an excuse to renew acquaintances. A couple weeks before the party at the Mielkes’ residence, a slew of them went on an ice cream date, Raposo says. The week prior to that, another bunch went bike riding together through Assiniboine Park.

"Wedding socials, bowling fundraisers, baby showers; pretty much any reason we can come up with to be in the same room works for us," she continues, adding she sometimes endures some good-natured ribbing from her co-workers when they ask what she’s up to on the weekend and she replies she’s getting together with her Twitter pals. "They’ll say, ‘you mean just random people you know from Twitter?’ and I’ll be, ‘yeah, but there’s a bit more to it than that.’"

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>We are Jets Family: (from left to right) Marie Mielke, Karl Mielke, Erin Myers, John Vermeer, Michelle Raposo, Carol Vermeer, Nicole Vinet, Paul Quaye, Barb Young and Mike Young.</p></p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

We are Jets Family: (from left to right) Marie Mielke, Karl Mielke, Erin Myers, John Vermeer, Michelle Raposo, Carol Vermeer, Nicole Vinet, Paul Quaye, Barb Young and Mike Young.

Myers, originally from Brandon, concurs wholeheartedly.

"The Jetsfam has become my Winnipeg family in a lot of ways," says Myers, who has travelled to road games with members of the group, including a trip to California in January 2015 to attend Teemu Selanne’s jersey retirement ceremony at Honda Centre, prior to a tilt between the Jets and Ducks. "They’ve supported me through the good times and the bad. Yes, we don’t always agree but isn’t that what friendship and family is?"

One more thing; while the Jetsfam is happy to welcome anybody — OK, maybe not Leafs fans — into their fold, there is one person both Raposo and Myers would especially like to save a seat for at their next social function.

"Obviously he has better things to do the day of a game than hang out with us, but if (Jets captain) Blake Wheeler ever has some time on his hands he has an open invitation," Raposo says with a laugh.

"Yeah, even if it’s just to come over and watch some highlights," Myers interjects. "I mean, why not? We’re fricking awesome."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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