February 27, 2020

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Opinion

Heritage Classic all about our city's healing

Sunny mood among fans during hour-long delay

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>A nearly full house -- 33,240 attendees -- watches the NHL game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Edmonton Oilers at Investors Group Field Sunday. </p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A nearly full house -- 33,240 attendees -- watches the NHL game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Edmonton Oilers at Investors Group Field Sunday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/10/2016 (1221 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Leave it to Winnipeg to be drowned in late October sun on the one day it would have been better to stay grey.

There is something so perfectly Winnipeg about that, about weather that refuses to co-operate with human ambitions. So yes, sunlight bore down on the ice at Investors Group Field. Yes, it put the Heritage Classic into an hour-long sunshine delay.

That was more than all right, in that balmy 10 C weather. The wait could have lasted another hour and still been OK.

"It’s so nice here in the sun," one woman sighed to no one in particular, 30 minutes after the game should have begun. Manitobans know how perfect fall days become precious. We know not to let them pass without a smile, and a thanks.

Besides, it gave us more time. More time to chug beers. More time to shuffle through a concourse choked with orange and white jerseys. More time to lean against the stadium walls, which still seem so gleaming new, and soak in the last of the fall.

Most of all, the delay left more time to stand in line. There was a lot of that at the Heritage Classic: lines to get into the party zone in a parking lot; to pose in front of a giant inflatable Jets jersey; to play hockey-puck Plinko beside a new Honda.

At one point, because this is Winnipeg and "free sample" seduces us as surely as a siren does a sailor, there were 50 people in line for a free sample of a sponsor’s chocolate cake. It looked to be about two bites. Hopefully, it was worth the wait.

'No, you couldn't picture this. We allfelt something leave our heart'— Jets legend Dale Hawerchuk, on the Heritage Classic's healing powers for a city that lost — and then regained — its team

Even if it wasn’t, it’s not like anyone was going anywhere fast anyway.

"There’s a lineup to get into the lineup for everywhere you can get into a lineup," one man said while jammed into a lineup. "There’s a lineup for the crosswalk to get to the lineup."

So if sunshine was the unannounced star of the Heritage Classic, then waiting was the stage. It was the setting and backdrop to everything that happened outside of the game. The waiting was lubricated by beer and occupied by spurts of big money.

It wasn’t just the 50/50 jackpot, which blasted past $400,000. It was also the way that, during TV time outs, fans heard a drumbeat of promos for the official ketchup of the NHL, the official chocolate of the NHL and the NHL’s official battered-fish product.

Hey, it’s to be expected. More than 33,000 people crowded the stadium; brands naturally jostle for a share of that attention.

Yet the real magic of the Heritage Classic didn’t happen on the ice and couldn’t be bought with advertising dollars. It happened during the second intermission when broadcaster Scott Oake welcomed a few iconic Jets to the field.

There they were, fresh off Saturday’s alumni game: Winnipeg legends from the Jets 1.0 years, a few hallowed local names. There was Doug Smail and Dave Ellett. There was Teemu Selanne, whom the crowd showered with love once again.

Then there was Dale Hawerchuk, and Oake asked him the question every fan had asked themselves at least once, this week. Did we ever imagine this could happen, after the Jets vanished? Did we ever imagine we’d meet again at a Heritage Classic?

"No, you couldn’t picture this," Hawerchuk said. "We all felt something leave our heart" when the team left, he added.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Oilers fan Justin Lavallee from Portage la Prairie enjoys a cold one prior to the game.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Oilers fan Justin Lavallee from Portage la Prairie enjoys a cold one prior to the game.

A theory: if Oct. 9, 2011, was the beginning of a healing for this city, then Oct. 23, 2016, was the day the wound fully closed.

On Sunday, it was bandaged together by the jerseys lined up in a row: Byfuglien, Wheeler, Ehlers, Selanne. The lineage of those names marks a history that, though not connected on paper, is uninterrupted in the hearts of the fans who lived it.

There is something telling about how easily the Heritage Classic glossed over that awkward break. When Hawerchuk and Selanne took the ice for the Jets and basked in fan glow Sunday, what was erased was 15 years of gnawing civic pain.

After all, the wound was never just about the Jets, really. It was always about the city and what we believed it could be.

Yeah, maybe it is a little Orwellian: the Jets have always been the Jets, the Jets have always been at war with Edmonton. But it is also something deeper. Millionaires may own franchises, but a franchise is only worth the emotion its fans have invested.

Five years have passed since we got the Jets "back." This team is building its own lore, its own store of dramatic personae.

Consider some of the surgically altered Jets jerseys on display around the Heritage Classic. There was one woman in a Jets No. 9 jersey: she’d plastered over the "Kane" name with tape. "I need a new jersey," she’d written on it in marker.

Her friend, in a Jets No. 8, had also taped over the name bar of his sweater: "My other jersey is Kane. #can’twin," it read.

There was this moment, though. After the ceremonial puck drop, Hawerchuk leaned in to pat Blake Wheeler on the shoulder, and a torch passed across decades, captain to captain. It was almost as if the Jets-deprived years never happened.

The fans here earned that part. It wasn’t just the league or the team. It was the fans who remembered and always believed.

Now, the only thing left for the Jets is to win. When the Stanley Cup comes to Winnipeg, Hawerchuk said, he wants to be part of it. It doesn’t seem particularly likely this season, especially not after the anemic home-team performance this weekend.

The future is yet to be written. For now, after the mammoth 50/50 draw was over, fans shrugged off the loss and began to spill out of the stadium.

By then, the sun was nearer to setting. The blue sky was marred only by the contrails of a few passing jets, a ragged V of lingering Canada geese and the orange glow where the horizon began its transition to night.

On the 160 bus downtown, a Jets fan peppered visiting Edmonton fans with suggestions of where to get dinner. ("There’s Hy’s," he offered, with a true Winnipeg caveat: "It’s expensive.") Then he yanked the bus cord, and prepared to make his exit.

"Good luck this year," he said to the Edmonton fans and tapped them on the arm. "See you in the finals."

One of the Oilers fans straightened her jersey. It was a McDavid. "I hope so," her partner replied.

Then the Jets fan pressed open the doors and skipped out onto the sidewalk along Pembina Highway. As the bus pulled away, the fan walked into the gathering night. He walked into the arms of a city that waited in line for a long, long time.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

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