Throughout our lifetime, we all encounter a series of defining moments which will effectively sculpt who we are personally, professionally, and spiritually. Hell, maybe even technologically. We do live in the 21st century after all. During these moments, we will be asked to weigh various options before making a final decision that will impact our lives permanently. Do you choose Door A or Door B? The red pill or the blue pill? The washer and dryer set or "What's in this Box"? Regardless of your choice, you will notice a personal shift bearing a strong lineage to previous decisions you've made. The end result may be climactic or anti-climactic. Sudden or gradual. Resistance to this as an inalienable truth is futile. It's human evolution.
In the world of sports, defining moments are the Holy Grail of explaining why certain things happen. TSN has "The Turning Point", which is an event that takes place in every game and is said to determine its outcome. Analysts will scour through sixty minutes of hockey to find one event they can hold above all the others and say "this is why team X lost and team Y won", completely oblivious to the fact that professional sports cannot be autopsied for one specific cause of death. It just doesn't explain itself that easily.
The Winnipeg Jets and New York Islanders will oppose each other for the final time this season later tonight in a contest that serves only to determine who will get a higher draft pick. But don't be fooled by the aesthetics of this match-up, there is more than meets the eye. In fact, a parallel can be drawn between these two teams, serving as a constant reminder that what's here one day may not be the next.
The Jets have risen from the ashes like a Phoenix (see what I did there!?) becoming one of the feel good stories in all of professional sports. In May 2011, the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers were forced to move north of the Mason-Dixon line, due to the shortcomings of their incompetent management and TSNE's tireless efforts to bring hockey back to Winnipeg. The Jets have provided a breath of fresh air to the revitalization of this city and it's been nearly impossible to find a ticket for sale that isn't vastly overpriced or counterfeit.
Flashing back to 1995-96 and it was evident that any effect the old Jets had on this city did not rival that which fans have become accustomed today. There are many factors attributed to why the NHL could no longer survive here, but that is subject for a different discussion. The bottom line is that up until the threat of losing their team after years of on-ice mediocrity became a reality, fans simply did not pack the old Winnipeg Arena in the same fashion they do the MTS Centre some fifteen years later.
While the Jets have entranced the city of Winnipeg into an euphoric state, an entirely different metamorphosis has taken place on Long Island. It's been a long, hard fall from grace for a club which bolsters a short, yet rich tradition of winning. The history of one of the greatest dynasties ever assembled, led by one of the most well revered coaches in NHL history (Al Arbour) is a distant memory to the mess it has now become. The Islanders self-implosion roots itself deeply in the mid-nineties when General Manager Don Maloney, fresh off an appearance in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals decided to revamp his roster, trading away then stars such as Pierre Turgeon, Benoit Hogue and Vladimir Malakhov for a return that didn't quite equate its cost. He would later sign Mike Milbury to become his head coach, before the former Boston Bruin ultimately usurped Maloney in his role as GM. In his new position, Milbury orchestrated some of the most lopsided trades in NHL history, many that would even make the incompetent Don Waddell blush.
After a string of absentee owners left the teams future in jeopardy, the Isles were purchased by computer software mogul Charles Wang in June of 2000, a man who, despite early success, has made a career of churning out neaderthalic and zany plots to get things back on track in New York. His buffoonery reached all time highs in the summer of 2006 when he named his recently retired back-up goaltender as the General Manager to right their ship, and afterwards exiled former star Pat Lafontaine from the decrepit bowels of the Nassau Coliseum because he wouldn't "buy in" to this ludicrous plan during his time as Special Advisor.
Though both teams are on separate ends of the spectrum today, their defining moments have navigated them through a similar terrain, albeit inversed. With the development plan for a new arena in Long Island on thin ice, it appears as though the Islanders too could be on the verge of extinction - a resolution that would be one of the largest black marks on the history of the sport, not to mention a terrible shame to proud Islander fans everywhere.
Having said all this, the defining moment which I am meandering over relates to a time when a nine year old boy hopped into his dad's car and set course for what was, unknowingly, the last NHL game he would ever attend.
In case you're wondering, that little boy was me.
It was a frosty yet sunny Saturday morning in March of 1996. Living in small-town Manitoba had certain perks, and on this day it was that even though I was running late for a haircut, my stylist lived just two houses away. I was eager to get going, pleading with my mother to hurry up with her own beautification so that we could head out the door. Of course, I wasn't particularly jazzed for my appointment, although I do enjoy the electric buzz of a hair clipper against the sides of my cranium. No, this morning in particular I was more interested in what was going to take place after scissors met follicles - a trip to the Winnipeg Arena to watch the Winnipeg Jets take on the New York Islanders.
Dad had a full plate that day. He had some errands to run in the morning and was to meet me back at home around 11:00 AM so that we could set out on the road. My memory is foggy, but there's a distinct possibility that my hair was four different lengths as I bounced around in the chair pining for my release. Upon my arrival home I still had time for an episode of Animaniacs! before dad made his way in the door and just as quickly, we were on our way back out.
Growing up in a small town dwarfs everything you are accustomed to once you hit the big city. Normally, trips to the arena were at night, which magnified everything. Streets jammed up with traffic would brighten our journey northwest. Apartment buildings lined up side-by-side towered the skyline and, given the season, certain complexes would have Christmas light's with Noel or Bah Humbug scattered across the balconies. Those always made me smile. But this trip was not like the others. The Jets were playing in a matinee on this particular day, which altered the luster of the journey. What can I say, I'm a sucker for bright, flashy gadgets.
We arrived at the rink shortly after 12:30 PM. A quick check of my battle-tested Timex sports watch told me we made good time for a 1:00 PM start. We took to our seats which were in the lower bowl, slightly inside the Islanders blue line. Much to my delight, the Islanders were wearing their Fish Stick jerseys, which I still maintain are bad ass. After a quick warm-up and the singing of National Anthems, it was time for opening puck drop.
I studied the players intensely as I would at any other game. The Islanders jerseys, much like the Whalers jerseys in games previous, had me paying specific attention to what the visitors were doing on the ice. I sat there immersed in the present, completely ignorant to the fact that this would be the end of the line for me and live NHL hockey. Being a young kid from a small town, I wasn't entirely sure on what the fate of the Jets would hold. I remembered going to one of the rallies at the Forks in the spring of 1995 but cable news wasn't what it is today. I'm actually glad that I was unaware of the fate of the Jets as I feel knowing that would have altered the experience and had a negative impact on my enjoyment of the game.
After the first period, Keith Tkachuk had the Jets up 1-0. Things were looking good. The teams would trade goals early in the second before Zigmund Palffy came in on a breakaway and completely undressed Nikolai Khabibulin to tie the game at 2-2. I stood up and applauded. It was a beautiful goal. Bryan McCabe scored what turned out to be the game winner seven minutes later.
The Islanders would strike once more in the third, and that was enough to bury the Jets. Six days prior, the Jets won a 7-5 affair in New York, a score which was indicative of the style of play in the era. While it would have been nice to see the Jets win, that was never the object of my desire. My amusement came not from a scoreboard which favoured the home team, but rather the bond that was formed between father and son as they shared their common passion of the game of hockey.
Driving home was always the equivalent of a drug addict coming down from their latest high. You put moments like these on a pedestal; a date on a calendar circled weeks in advance as you slowly, painfully mark exes on each day leading up to the exciting event. The anticipation is the rush, the game itself is the release, the post game car ride is the feeling of despair and desire to relapse. Only in this case, a relapse would not be forthcoming.
We all know what happens next: the Jets are sold and moved to Phoenix. Sadness encased the city similar to how anti-depressant commercials always have an actor stuck beneath a raining umbrella. There was no escape. Definitely no recluse.
But then something wonderful happened. A defining moment, if you will. Mark Chipman spearheaded the endeavour of bringing the IHL's Minnesota Moose to Winnipeg, rebranding them as the Manitoba Moose. Tickets were more affordable to the middle-class. For me personally, this meant more hockey with dad. The first few years of Moose hockey we went to about ten games a year. From 1991-96 I went to approximately eight Jets games. Suffice to say, I was watching much more live hockey in the company of my father, which was just aces if you asked ten year old me.
A few years later, my priorities had changed. I was in junior high and this meant that games which I would have watched with dad would now be enjoyed with friends. Looking back on it, those decisions were regrettable. The common bond for good hockey should have outweighed the "cool" factor of going with friends, but it didn't. Still, I would always look back fondly on that Islanders game as my last NHL game and couldn't imagine anyone else I would have rather attended it with. I cherished the memories as I was happy that a moment as defining as my last ever NHL game could be spent with someone I held in the highest regard.
With the Jets return, I have already been to a handful of games this year. Thankfully, most of them have been with dad. Though we have both aged since our last go around, the game still speaks to us the same way it did when I was a snot-nosed kid who thought he knew everything and he was the wise elder, always there to keep me in check. For the fourth and final time this year, I will relive the events of March 9, 1996 over in my mind. This might take place during the pre-game banter of Beyak & Co. Perhaps recollection time could be during one of the intermissions. If it's a particularly dull game, I'll probably drift in and out and of subconsciousness as I bethink giving Palffy his well deserved standing ovation. Regardless of when it happens, it assuredly will happen.
Defining moments. They sculpt your life.