"How 'bout them Jets". This was a comment that my dad used to say to take the conversation away from teaching when getting together with friends. Well, it served as a signal to leave the room to talk about anything other than teaching because my dad isn't a teacher. For years that phrase had no actual value; it was simply a joke between two friends. Suddenly, instead a being a way to change the conversation, it became a phrase to start a new one about them Jets. Winnipeg had remembered for so long, aching with anticipation that the man who took their team away would allow them to get a NHL team again. Let them cheer for something that made them feel like the big city that Winnipeg aspires to be.
I live in Winnipeg. I may not always live in Winnipeg, but I do for now. I love Winnipeg as a whole when it isn't too hot, there aren't many mosquitos and construction doesn't litter the streets. I also prefer to not freeze outside waiting for buses that may or may not come. But I love Winnipeg with all my heart; against better judgement. Winnipeg feels like an old sweatshirt that is so comfy that you are afraid to throw it out because you don't want to miss it, even if you can get a better sweatshirt without holes that will do the same job. It isn't your sweatshirt anymore and that scares you.
The Winnipeg Jets are a part of the fabric that constructs the messy town called Winnipeg. They left here in 1996, but the soul of the team, the spirit that tried to keep them here during the end never left. That spirit was in the malls as merchandise was being sold for a team that had up and left years before. It was there when the fans shut down Portage and Main to celebrate the return of the team; not the actual team, but something that was reminiscent of the team they knew and loved.
Winnipeg has always fancied itself as a major city, maybe because Winnipeg once was a major city. Winnipeg was once a hub; a place where people moved to instead of moved from. Winnipeg was a place where businesses were based because it was convenient. Winnipeg was once a place to be; until it wasn't anymore.
Walk down Selkirk Avenue. It used to be a grand place, now it's a place where people go to promote peace and protest the violence that envelopes downtown and the North End. There is only one real grocery store in the area and even that can be a walk to get to. The vibrancy that can be found in the old photos of the area is gone. Instead, there is a community that is fighting for their kids. A place that is desperately trying to create a future where some say there is no way out.
Walking around parts of Winnipeg, the past is everywhere; on the faces of the people that live in the area as well as the buildings. I did a community walk not that far from the University of Winnipeg and the houses were dilapidated. That was because they were not built to last forever, but instead built to last for the moment. That moment passed and those houses still stand, beaten in by the weather but desperately needed by it's occupants as the weather in Winnipeg takes no prisoners. The weather beats down the best of us; grinding us to a pulp with never ending winters and hot, humid summers filled with mosquitos. But leave here? No way! It will get better because it has to, at least that is what we are lead to believe.
For years Winnipeg had the Manitoba Moose. The Moose were a valiant group who gave the city many good memories, but they were not what Winnipeg really craved: validation. The Moose were only in Winnipeg because the Jets failed in their first attempt in Winnipeg. The Moose were affordable, they were in a lower league where the tickets were cheaper and it was easier to take a family to a game. It was hockey that the people were watching, but it wasn't their beloved Jets. It wasn't the team that they had emptied their piggy banks for trying to save. It was a hockey team, but it wasn't the right hockey team.
For years the rumours swirled whenever a franchise was struggling that they could move to Winnipeg. It never happened. Instead, once a year the
Phoenix Arizona Coyotes would come and play a pre-season game every year. But it wasn't the Jets and it would never be the Jets unless they returned to the city. The AHL might be the right size of league for Winnipeg's actual size, but the dreams of the city and the people living here demanded something bigger, something grander. Something that was more in line with our past as an important city in Canada than our present as the centre of Canada; a place where people stop because we are here, not because there's a lot to do.
Winnipeg does not need a NHL team to become a great city. It does not need a NHL team to show that when the Red and Assiniboine Rivers burst their banks once again, that they will help protect the houses that are vulnerable. No NHL team can make Folklarama an event; Folklarama is an event because it is part of Winnipeg, much like the Forks and the Festival du Voyageur are a part of Winnipeg. But the people of Winnipeg need the Jets to remind us of what we once were and what we can still be.
Winnipeg needs the Jets. Winnipeg needs the validation that we can still be a major city; that we can are still a major city. We need validation that we are not a has been place; someplace that was something until the importance of geographical location died off.
Winnipeg really isn't much. It's a collection of imperfect places and imperfect ideas that work imperfectly. Winnipeg is imperfect. It is a place in the centre of a continent that doesn't know what it should be anymore. Instead of trying to define Winnipeg; to define ourselves, we look beyond our limits to those who stay here, who visit here for validation. Winnipeg should not have to be validated, we should not have to look elsewhere to accept our city for what it is.
When the NHL returned to Winnipeg there was a sense that the team had to be named the Winnipeg Jets; that no other name would do. The Jets defined Winnipeg during their existence until they left in 1996 and in their 15 year absence. The Jets define Winnipeg today. The Jets will always define Winnipeg, whether they are here or long gone to a different city.
At the heart of Winnipeg is the notion of hard work. There are office buildings yes, but the train tracks, the meat plants, the trucks that drive through here. Hard work. People look at the Jets and they see themselves in the players that are defined not by their skill or their flash, but by their work ethic, by their determination.
No one has to love us or even tolerate us except for ourselves. The players on the Jets only have to live here part of the year and play hard. The players only owe us that. The rest we have to find ourselves because somewhere in ourselves, we all love a part of Winnipeg. No one should ever have to validate this for us.
Winnipeg is okay. We should know that and be fine with it. It may mean settling, but what is wrong with being okay. We are a small city in the middle of nowhere. We are okay. We don't need a NHL team to be okay. We don't need people to tell us that they love Winnipeg to be okay. We should know we are okay, because we are here all the time and we know our city best.
I started writing this before everything exploded with Evander Kane. I have been trying to articulate the relationship between Winnipeg and the Jets. The more I wrote, the more I realized that the Jets symbolize Winnipeg as a whole. Winnipeg had to bounce back from a lot, including the loss of the Jets. I have a weird relationship with the Jets because I grew up with the Manitoba Moose. The more I observe things, the more I think that Winnipeggers are insecure about our city, afraid of what other people think of us. We are a self conscious group and we project that to the world. I love Winnipeg for what it is, flaws included. We need to stop needing our city validated because our city works for us. We may not love Winnipeg, but we don't hate it enough to leave. No one and nothing can make Winnipeg a great city outside of those of us who live here. Winnipeg: we loathe ourselves so everyone will love us to make us feel better.