It had all the trappings of an old-time religious revival meeting, only with more beer, rock music and airhorns.

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This article was published 13/4/2018 (1255 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

It had all the trappings of an old-time religious revival meeting, only with more beer, rock music and airhorns.

Inside the cathedral, Bell MTS Place, a sold-out crowd of 15,321 white-clad, towel-waving believers cheered in support of their hockey gods.

Outside, on the street, arguably an equal number of white-clad worshippers stood row upon row, shoulder to shoulder, staring reverently up at four giant TV screens and praying for another victory to bring this hockey-mad city salvation.

Outside or in, they all sang from the same hymn book: "GO, JETS, GO! GO, JETS, GO!"

Thousands upon thousands of fans braved sub-zero temperatures and bitter winds Friday night, packing Donald Street between Portage and St. Mary avenues to celebrate the Winnipeg Jets return to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The first Winnipeg Whiteout Street Party, wherein fans cheered their heroes to victory in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Wild, was such a hit, organizers expanded it southward by another city block for last night’s bash.

There was more of everything — food trucks, port-a-potties, giant screens, and people. Organizers predicted as many as 10,000 fans might attend, and it’s possible they underestimated.

"I’ve been in Winnipeg for 67 years and I’ve never seen anything like this," chirped Al Hurlburt, 67, chugging a beer shortly before Game 2 and surveying a crowd that was more a blindingly white blizzard of humanity than a mere sea of people.

"This is fantastic. This is why I’m here. I’ll bet there are more people out here on the street than inside the arena. It could be 15,000 people inside and 15,000 out here," Hurlburt said as he pressed against a wire fence to avoid the crush of humanity flowing past.

"For the city to embrace something like this, it’s unbelievable. You can feel the positive vibes. It feels like a different city. This is big time. I’ve travelled a lot and Winnipeg has hit the big time."

Left to right, Brad Gauthier, Jason Pilgrim and Ryan Boyle take a close look around on Donald Street Friday evening. Buddy Bernie Laramie, didn't get the memo and wore the wrong glasses peers over their shoulders.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Left to right, Brad Gauthier, Jason Pilgrim and Ryan Boyle take a close look around on Donald Street Friday evening. Buddy Bernie Laramie, didn't get the memo and wore the wrong glasses peers over their shoulders.

In keeping with Winnipeg’s beloved tradition of wearing white during the playoffs, street party revellers were decked from head to foot in white suits, white painters outfits, angel costumes, white face paint, and every conceivable manner of Jets jerseys.

One of the first fans waiting at the gates before the shindig began at 4:30 p.m. was staying warm inside a white unicorn costume, complete with rubber head.

"A unicorn is the luckiest thing you could have," Ben Bauer, 28, gushed from beneath his mask. "I’ve been waiting for the Jets to win the Stanley Cup for so long and it’s happening this year!

"I made a bet at the beginning of the year and if they win I get $18,000, so I’m extremely excited … It would mean the world to this city if they won the Cup. Everyone would be here (on the street). There wouldn’t be one person sitting at home. This one street wouldn’t be enough."

His buddy, Bryson Pluta, 27, who described himself as "the unicorn’s trainer," was one of many who said the street parties slated for every home playoff game give fans, especially those who can’t afford tickets, a chance to celebrate as a community.

"It gives us an identity and a reason to come together," Pluta, sporting white from head to toe, said. "When it comes to Game Day, we’re all Winnipeggers. It’s good to add some hockey back to our lives after the Humboldt (Saskatchewan bus) tragedy. It’s a way to heal — playing hockey and watching hockey."

When it comes to making a fashion statement in white, no one did it quite like Carol Fraser, 60, who strolled through the crowd in her wedding dress, complete with veil.

"This is a 1978 wedding dress," Fraser explained as passers-by stopped to say "congratulations" and ask her to pose for selfies. "It’s two hips and one husband ago.

"It’s the ultimate whiteout apparel. What could be more white? The moral is: When you pick out your wedding dress, pick one that you can wear to sporting events. I’m not even cold. It feels like we’re in a different city. Just the buzz and the excitement."

One of Fraser’s four sons, Ian MacDonald, coach of the Oak Park High School hockey team, laughingly rolled his eyes at his mom’s outfit and said the whiteout street parties are highlighting the best Winnipeg has to offer.

"It showcases us at our best," MacDonald said before puck drop, as the crowd began to swell. "Where else are you going to see this in Winnipeg? It’s the Rum Hut (at the Bombers games) on steroids."

Riley Smith (centre) with his dad Dan and Step Mom Alana Brownlee pose before game two Friday evening. They're headed to Mineapolis for game three.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Riley Smith (centre) with his dad Dan and Step Mom Alana Brownlee pose before game two Friday evening. They're headed to Mineapolis for game three.

Before the party really got hopping, along came 27-year-old Alyshea Mancini, protected from the bitter spring night by her warm and fuzzy Easter Bunny costume.

"I bought it because I have nephews and we had to do Easter," Mancini explained after doffing her bunny head for a brief chat. "This is perfect for the whiteout. It is so warm, too."

Like most diehard fans, she said the Jets’ success, and the huge street celebrations, are giving Winnipeg a big-city vibe. "It does feel like a different city," she said. "It feels like something exciting is happening here. It’s nice. We’re showing people that Winnipeg kicks ass, that we are a real hockey city."

The weather was unseasonably cold, but the fans at street level — watched closely by fans staring from behind the windows of Bell MTS Centre — were sizzling with playoff fever.

It didn’t take much to get Darren Sweers, sporting a funky white wig, to get onside with the religious revival analogy. "In Canada, we have many religions and hockey is one of them," he said, standing with his wife, Michelle, near the bustling food truck venue.

"This is where we pray to the hockey gods for victory. This gets people out, it gets people downtown. It really shows how Winnipeggers come together to celebrate just for the love of the game. It doesn’t matter how cold it is, because there’s a lot of warm people here."

Laurie Domes, 58, was one of the first people to arrive when the gates opened, despite the fact she had a coveted ticket for the game.

"I wanted to join the street party just to feel the energy and vibe," Domes explained. "It’s kind of like a revival. We are Winnipeg. We are the Jets. And we are here in full support. I’m embracing the ‘we-ness.’

"The game is the sermon. This is like a mission statement happening. Just like in the Humboldt situation, you get people coming together and people supporting. We are like a large Prairie town."

The well-behaved crowd was so excited they even sang along to the American national anthem — amid several airhorn blasts — but the shouts of "TRUE NORTH" during O Canada seemed to rattle the windows of the nearby hockey temple.

These Jets worshippers are thrilled to be back in the playoffs, but a Stanley Cup … now that would be an answer to everyone’s prayers.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs
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Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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