Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/5/2018 (1272 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
TORONTO — The mayor of Little Winnipeg isn’t here tonight and everyone is sorry that we missed him. The mayor had tickets for the game, so he hopped on a plane and flew 1,500 kilometres back to where all this began.
So he isn’t here, but his mayoral chair is taken. It’s arguably the best seat in the house: last one at the bar, clear view of the television, close to one of two upright pianos that hold vigil on the scene.
When Rebecca Sandulak learned the mayor — his name is Michal Grajewski, he’s an actor — wasn’t going to be in his spot Thursday night for Game 4 of the Jets-Nashville Predators NHL playoff series, she seized the moment.
"Can I call dibs?" she asked the bar on Twitter.
"You mean the Grajuicebox?" the bar’s Twitter account replied. "Assigned to Sandulak!"
In a way, this makes Sandulak the acting deputy mayor of Little Winnipeg, more formally known as Motel, a watering hole on a brick-lined Queen Street strip. As puck drop inches closer, she mingles with her constituents.
There are about 30 people at Motel tonight, a comfortably busy crowd for the cosy space. They trickled in after dark to claim a spot, resplendent in archeological layers of Jets regalia: old T-shirts and new hats, a garden of team crests.
Count the jerseys. There’s a nameless Heritage Classic, a Polar Night Blue home Pavelec. There’s even a replica 1990s Hawerchuk, though Ducky never wore that sweater; its owner, curling executive Chad McMullan, got it as a gift.
These are tonight’s residents of Little Winnipeg, and though the bar is hopping, it’s small enough that you can know each one by name. There’s Sandulak, who grew up in Carman, and McMullan, originally an East Kildonan kid.
The roll call moves on: Fort Garry, St. James. Most, like Bob Tooth, have been away: he grew up in Tuxedo, went to school with Brett Hull, then hopped a bus to Ontario after his 1983 university graduation and never turned around.
And then, in case the bar’s demographic was still in any doubt: "I’m from Transcona!" someone yells.
So here we are, in the moments before puck drop, and everyone is engaged in Winnipeg’s typical introductory triangulations: Where did you grow up? What, exactly, is it that you do? Whose co-worker’s cousin are you related to?
To Winnipeggers, it’s a familiar ritual; less so to a couple of Torontonians who, first brought here two days ago by an expat Winnipeg friend, were briefly perplexed when strangers kept sidling over to ask where they were from.
This is the Toronto heart of Jets playoff hype, and now everyone knows where everyone else went to school.
On the bar’s handful of screens, the lights fall dim over a sea of white. The chatter falls to quiet, several dozen people waiting for the moment, acting out the ritual even though no national television cameras are here to see.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the...
"True North!" the patrons shout, and outside on Queen Street, a passerby cranes his neck, momentarily surprised.
The point, Daniel Greaves says, is not that he wanted to open a hockey bar. No way. He’s a music guy, both by gift and trade, and Motel’s guiding light first fell along those lines: a warm neighbourhood bar, good tunes, good times.
So when Greaves and his wife Lisa Black bought the 800-square-foot space, they envisioned a mellow vibe. It was perfect, they thought: a Toronto classic, one of those narrow, woody ribbons that define the city’s social esthetic.
That was in August 2011, just weeks before the reborn Winnipeg Jets were set to take the ice. So, in addition to the pianos and space for jazz and folk musicians to play, Black and Greaves hung a TV and a projection screen.
In other words, Little Winnipeg’s origin story is perfectly mundane: the couple just wanted to watch the games.
They’d been in Toronto for more than a decade at that point, but in that anticipation they were just like every other Manitoban who couldn’t quite believe what had come to pass. Teams often leave small markets; it’s not often they move in.
Greaves was a fan growing up, of course. Hockey loomed large in his youth, buoyed by 1970s legends like Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson; he never played the game, he adds with a laugh: "I’m the only Winnipegger who can’t skate."
That was OK, though, because Greaves could sing. In the 1980s, he and three high school buddies began to parlay that talent into The Watchmen, what would become one of Winnipeg’s most successful musical exports.
Yet in the 1990s, as the band’s star was rising on MuchMusic, their hometown’s fortunes were falling the other way. Greaves and Black remember the pervasive sadness when the Jets left after the 1996 season. A couple of years later they, too, moved away.
"I remember the optics of it," he says. "The visuals of kids breaking their piggy banks (in a frenzied and, ultimately futile, community fundraising bid to keep the money-losing team in the city).
"When they were gone, it really sunk Winnipeg a lot. In the NHL, we were part of something way bigger than we were, and then they took it away."
There’s a note here about how, in 1996, his band was one of the few things in Winnipeg that seemed to be going in the right direction. Greaves raises his eyebrows at the suggestion and laughs; it’s not how it felt for them at the time, he says.
Yet now, two decades later, the circle has reconnected. Five days before Thursday’s game, Greaves and the rest of the Watchmen were in Winnipeg for their sold-out 30th anniversary show at Club Regent Casino.
Tonight, he’s stationed behind Motel’s bar alongside Black, slinging beers and rye-and-Cokes.
This, too, is what makes Motel a quintessentially Winnipeg space. When you scratch below the surface, all the city’s progeny are basically the same: heirs to a culture that long circled around music and Jets, moths to a prairie flame.
Sandulak, for instance, once thrilled to see The Watchmen play as a teen; it was the "biggest night" of her school memories, she says. Fast-forward decades, and the lead singer is pouring drinks for her and an old high school friend.
"It’s beautiful," she says. "There’s all these familiar ties here."
So perhaps it’s no surprise that shortly after Motel opened, word spread that the Jets flew on its screens.
First, the city’s expats started coming, followed by their family members. In turn, they told other Winnipeggers, and before long, people started rolling into the bar dragging luggage behind them, on their way to or from the airport.
Once, Black looked up from the bar and, to mutual surprise, saw a guy she used to work with back in Winnipeg strolling in. He didn’t know she owned the place; like everyone else, he’d just heard about "the Winnipeg bar."
"It all happened really organically," Greaves says. "We put a sign out and Winnipeggers started showing up. We don’t have a website. We’ve never really said it out loud... it feels like we created something special, accidentally."
Something special indeed. And While Greaves and Black are basking in the buzz, soon there will be no vacancies at this Motel.
"Let’s just say we can’t do too much more press," Greaves says.
The connection for Little Winnipeggers is direct, and it goes well beyond just watching the game on TV.
Over the last few years, The Watchmen have played regular gigs at the Burton Cummings Theatre. Three of those visits coincided with a Jets home game; Greaves was invited to the arena, to sing the pre-game anthems before heading two blocks north for the show.
"It’s a huge rush," he says. "Obviously, it’s not new to me, and singing a capella isn’t new to me. But the American anthem is a great tune. It’s 90 seconds of, ‘You gotta be a singer, and f----in’ do this right,’ and I love it."
As Greaves took the ice, ready to belt about true patriot love and star-spangled banners, he thought about the Motel crowd, watching from halfway across the nation. He was away from his patrons but, in a way, right there with them.
In March 2015, one regular took a video of that scene, and posted it to YouTube. It shows the Little Winnipeggers gazing at the TV over the bar while Greaves sings, cheering as his voice swells toward the climax of the rocket’s red glare.
One day, maybe, it will happen again. Greaves is certainly game; he recently emailed True North, offering his vocal services for the playoffs. He’d even come out on his own dime, he told them, because man, wouldn’t that be great?
"I don’t think they’re gonna change things up, but I had to ask," he says with a grin. "It would be amazing to do that, with that energy. Plus, I’d get to see the game. Which would be the real reason, just to get in that building."
The funny thing is, Todd Hofley had been coming to Motel for a while, before he made the connection. He was sitting in the bar one night, when he noticed the Jets bobbleheads holding court on the fridge, the Jets textiles on the wall.
Wait a minute, he thought, and then the lightbulb went off: this is a Jets bar.
For Hofley, a University of Winnipeg grad who grew up in St. James, that was a revelation. It’s been 18 years since he left Manitoba, pursuing an acting career that carried him to Dallas and Los Angeles before landing in Toronto.
Today, he lives in the downtown Liberty Village neighbourhood, where he is a passionate community organizer.
Yet, like everyone else in the bar tonight, his hometown never felt too far away. While he waited for the opening faceoff Thursday, he texted Winnipeg friends; his adult son moved back to Manitoba not long ago.
"There’s always that spot in your heart for Winnipeg," Hofley says. "It was just such a great place to grow up."
And the Jets are an indivisible part of that connection. Torontonians, he says, don’t always understand the finer points of that relationship. Which isn’t a knock; there’s no question that Leafs Nation knows what it is to love a team.
But the story of the Jets is tied to the fate of Winnipeg itself, and in ways that are hard to describe, could only be felt. Pride and devastation. The bitterness of their absence. The helplessness of realizing that love is not enough.
"What the Jets mean to Winnipeg is so much," Hofley says simply. "What the Jets mean to Winnipeg is huge."
Look around, he says gesturing toward the crowd of jerseys, the raptly attentive faces. This is a diasporic longing, localized to this spot. There are many sports bars in Toronto showing the game, but there is only one Motel.
They are not places where you’d know where everyone went to high school, never mind before the game is underway.
At a low table near Motel’s entrance, Darren Wiebe waits for the game to start. He moved to Toronto in 2011, the same year the NHL returned to Winnipeg; now, he says, it means a lot to experience the team formerly known as the Atlanta Thrashers as part of a whole community.
"Winnipeg is a special place," he says. "It often takes a back seat to other places in Canada. So being around other Winnipeggers, and being able to support the Jets in a place you feel at home is almost an extension of being there."
The game is rolling, now. The crowd rises and falls with the play, willing the skaters forward, shouting occasional affirmations. During intermission, Black and Greaves turn on some music, to subdue the drone of ads.
Outside, Sandulak looks over the scene with a joyful laugh. A film-set photographer, she moved to Toronto seven years ago; after she arrived, colleagues jokingly told her that she had "Winnipegitis," or in other words, she was too nice.
She tugs at the Jets cap on her head. True story, she says — she snagged tickets for one of the Jets 2.0 pre-season games in 2011, but she had to sell them, because she was moving to Toronto. She was "devastated."
Now look at where she’d landed. Look at what she’s helped build: a little bit of that same thrill, 1,500 km away.
"It goes back to that ‘Friendly Manitoba’ charm," she says brightly. "It’s an impossible connection to break."
Because it’s not just the Jets, or the sport or the bar. It’s everything that came before — all the years spent claiming the same place and holding it dear. Time and life scattered many Manitobans here, but those binding ties endure.
"Regardless of what team you cheer for, people can’t deny the Winnipeg story, and the beauty of it," Sandulak says. "I think that’s why all of us ex-’Peggers are so proud."
At least they get to cheer tonight. They were waiting. Despite being down 1-0 after the first period, the mood in the bar is brightened by the fact the Jets controlled the play. That mood turns to a nervous sort of quiet after the frustrating second frame.
"They’ll do something special," Wiebe ultimately decides during the second intermission.
The Jets don’t, not tonight. There will be no repeat of Game 3’s stunning comeback. Still, when Patrik Laine finally solves Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne with under a minute left to play, the Motel crowd greets it warmly.
"Small victories!" one man yells out.
And when the referees blow the whistle with 0.3 seconds on the clock — soon to be adjusted, though not by much — the crowd breaks into a loose guffaw: "we’re good, we’re good," they laugh, but they stay, watching right to the end.
The upshot, someone points out: a sixth second-round playoff game means more business for Motel.
It’s near 1 a.m. in Toronto, now, and an early workday morning looms. The people in Jets jerseys trickle out, off to bed and Motel falls quiet. Greaves leans behind the bar, chatting with a couple of lingering late-night guests.
Outside, a man walking by spies the long faces, and makes a guess but gets it wrong: "Sad night, the Raptors lost," he says.
So that’s a wrap on Thursday night at Motel. As patrons make their goodbyes, they pledge to return for Game 5.
Saturday will be better, they say. Saturday games get wild here. An echo of an old Winnipeg refrain, to visitors: come back again, we’ll show you. Come back when it’s warmer. Come back when we’re closer to what we yearn to be.
Any day now, it will come, as Greaves once sang.
More than anything at Motel, that’s what feels familiar. It’s that wanting to be together, and be seen. This is the most Winnipeg place in Toronto, and its fans have long been away. But give them a place to make home, and they’ll stay.
"It’s neighbourly camaraderie," co-owner Black says. "We’re all joined together for two things: Winnipeg and the Jets. They go together. It’s nostalgic for a lot of people... and I feel so proud that it’s here."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.