When I was a kid, I would save up my allowance so I could go to Winnipeg Jets games. 7-11 had Jets tickets for seven dollars. I would go to games with my neighbour, Rob, or my cousin, Arlen. And, after games, we would hang around in the bowels of the Winnipeg Arena, waiting by the dressing room for the players to come out. By the time I was 15, I had every Jets player’s hockey card autographed. From Dale Hawerchuk to Bengt Lundholm. I had a brief Bengt Lundholm phase. I remember endless games of street hockey on -20 degree nights. All of the neighbourhood kids yelling names of their heroes: “I’m Pokey Reddick!” “I’m Thomas Steen!” “I’m Dave Ellett!” I would sometimes yell, “I’m Bengt Lundholm!” I’m not sure why.
Once, when I was around seven or eight, I was walking with my dad in the basement of the old barn. It was the second intermission of a game versus the Minnesota North Stars.
He momentarily lost sight of me and I slipped into the Jets dressing room. I remember convincing myself that it was a good idea because I would hear what the coaches were telling the players and then I could report the game plan back to Dad. A split second later, I was chased out by a half-dressed, full-on frothing Jimmy Mann. Jimmy Mann was the Jets’ notoriously talentless first round draft pick goon. The first of many iffy decisions by long-time GM John Ferguson.
I sat on Fergie’s lap once. In the early ’80s. At The Keg Steakhouse. Earlier that evening my parents loaded me and my brother, Jamie, into the Olds Cutlass and they brought our hockey sticker books. When we were seated at our table, I noticed something eerily familiar about our waiter. And then I freaked out. I cried. It was the kind of pure cry that I can now only achieve when I watch episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Our waiter was Morris Lukowich. My favourite Jet. There were photos taken. I was shaking and, now that I think about it, it is a very real possibility that I had my first panic attack at that moment. My brother was generally disinterested in The Keg’s “Jets Night” festivities, but I was in all my glory. Dad took me over to Fergie’s table where he was holding court with coaches and cronies. He was chomping on a cigar and he grabbed me and put me on his lap Santa-style for a photo op. He was making everybody laugh so hard. I remember hearing a lot of bad words. I knew some of the bad words, but I didn’t know all of them. I just knew they were bad. I could tell from the tone.
When I couldn’t make it to the arena, I would listen on the radio. The voices of Ken “The Friar” Nicholson, Curt Keilback, Bob Irving, Jordy Douglas, Kelly Moore. I can still recall all of the old commercials from 58 CKY and 680 CJOB. Sometimes, when I am very close to sleep, I hear them. Kern-Hill Furniture Co-op, Winnipeg Supply, Poulin’s Pest Control. There’s something very haunting and comforting about those radio voices and jingles. Winnipeg Supply used to have a commercial that used the word “parsimonious” and I remember looking that word up and becoming fascinated with it. As a teenager, I wrote a very early, very bad poem entitled “Parsimonious.” In the 1990 playoffs, Dave Ellett scored one of the most memorable goals in Jets history. A slapper in double overtime to take the Jets to a 3-1 series lead over the Edmonton Oilers (a series they would eventually lose).
I had school the next day so I was listening in bed to Curt Keilback. When he bellowed, “He scores!” I rushed downstairs jumped into Dad’s arms and we jumped up and down while CBC replayed the goal and Don Whitman and John Garrett marveled at the extended celebration of the White-Out crowd. Whitman: “These fans just don’t want to go home!”
When I was 12, I went to a hockey camp. Doug Smail and Laurie Boschman were there. My ice time is a blur. I was wickedly asthmatic and I was not the strongest skater. I doubt if I ever scored more than two goals a season during my hockey playing days. It was never meant to be. I remember hearing at that camp that Hawerchuk was asthmatic too. It made me feel better for a moment. Laurie Boschman and Doug Smail would have evening talks with groups of us. They would talk about how Jesus Christ had made all the difference in their hockey careers. I remember thinking how unlikely that was. But I still listened and was still in awe. When Mom came to pick me up from camp, she locked her keys in her car. Doug Smail came out of the building with a coat hanger and within minutes, he had successfully broken into Mom’s car. I guess Jesus had blessed him with carjacking skills too.
In 1979, the Winnipeg Jets beat Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in the very last Avco Cup Finals (the WHA Championship). Our goalie was Gary “Suitcase” Smith and our best player was Morris Lukowich. I have a clear memory of the feeling in the city at that time. Even at the cognitively and linguistically dubious age of four, I remember thinking something along the lines of: “This is what it will always be like.” Now, I realize that what I just wrote may seem like one of those cheap, strategically fictional moments—the ones that always find their way into non-fiction pieces. But I truly do remember thinking something along those lines. Everyone was so happy. That was the last time the Winnipeg Jets were champions.
The Winnipeg Jets returned to the NHL last year. It was without a doubt the biggest story in hockey. Well, at least the biggest positive story in hockey. I was elated. I couldn’t sleep in the days leading up to the announcement. The great writer Stephen Brunt broke the story and I cried a full-on DS9-style cry. Of course, the team is completely different, with exciting young players like Andrew Ladd, Ondrej Pavelec, Blake Wheeler, and Dustin Byfuglien. But I know my city. There are kids who will grow up with this team. Kids who will have unshakable memories. Like the time Jimmy Slater gave the family car a boost on Portage Avenue. Or the time the very parsimonious Claude Noel had flirted with Grandma while he was shopping for dress shirts and ties at the Transcona Zellers. The one thing that I know about Winnipeg is that you can’t live there and get away with being anything other than a Winnipegger. The NHL has changed so much over these years. The Winnipeg Jets are completely different from the Winnipeg Jets of my youth. But Winnipeg will always be Winnipeg.
This piece originally appeared in THE BARNSTORMER a literary sports journal.