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The Long Reach of the Great Game

The indomitable story of a Jets Fan who’s never plugged in his car

Joel Auerbach

There’s one subject that always seems to fascinate me and that’s how is Canada perceived abroad? Perhaps, more importantly how do people not born in this country view the game of hockey? I find it sometimes hard to believe how quickly new Canadians seem to be able to grasp the allure of watching men and women strap skates to their feet and chase a piece of frozen rubber around a sheet of ice with sticks. In my every day dealings I see new hockey fans of every ethnicity and background.

From the 80 year old Asian grandma in my building who adamantly insists that Luongo (with a scathing review of his last game) must be traded every time she sees me, to the young Nigerian lad who showed up to his first hockey practice with skates, soccer shin pads, a stick and a helmet ready to play! The basic gravitas of the game never ceases to amaze me, but does it travel beyond the confines of North America? Do new hockey fans sprout up where the snow never falls and a block heater is about as common as a three dollar bill.

Apparently yes.

As an obsessed fan that main-lines everything Jets, I of course frequent a number of on-line forums so that I can be proven wrong on a regular basis. It was in one of these forums that I found a member was having trouble streaming games abroad. In and effort to help I found myself talking to a hardcore Jets fan who absolutely needed to see every Jets game in Australia. Naturally I assumed he was a displaced Canadian who found himself thousands of miles away from our shared addiction, but I thought why not ask the question; Are you from Canada originally or are you a native Australian?

I found the answer to be riveting, so here it is in his own words;

"To answer your question, yes I am an Australian native, born and bred. 28 years of age and have grown up largely in sunny Sydney. Eats vegemite and enjoys fishing.

I guess I always liked hockey, but the problem is particularly through the 90's the games where simply out of reach. There’s no network coverage of the NHL here at all, there’s no coverage of even the "Australian hockey league". In fact the first tangible experience I can remember of the NHL was playing an ice hockey video game with my older brother when I was very young; I think it was on the original Nintendo console.

I remember one Christmas I got a street hockey stick and street puck from Santa (was always a keen roller blader - not much ice here obviously) and I spent hours playing street hockey on my own, but unfortunately there really wasn't much in the way of development for me. I mean we have always had ice rinks, in fact they where always a great place to escape the heat on 40 degree days, and hockey has always existed here, however it is a very expensive sport for a kids parents to endorse, and my family just never really had the kind of money needed to get me kited up every year I guess. We have no less then 4 football codes to choose from, amongst other sports, so I was always pushed more
towards soccer then hockey. And with such little exposure to the sport... soon the boy becomes a man and other things preoccupy him.

About a year and a half ago I moved in on campus at the University of Western Sydney where I met a Canadian girl who introduced me to Game Centre. Furthermore she explained the game to me in ways it hadn't been explained before, she broke it down play by play, and I all of a sudden understood the game as well as having as much hockey as my heart desired. Since that time I have become Ice Hockey crazed. I simply can't get enough of the game, I not only watch it, but have since also taken up playing the game as well. And I'm happy to say that ice hockey here is growing massively in popularity. It's a real challenge trying to get ice time these days.

You guys are SO lucky. My dream is to one day skate on a frozen lake like Bobby Orr once did.. Just skate and skate and skate without any barriers around me, that would simply be amazing. Unfortunately down here you really have to be prepared to fork out serious cash to have the privilege of playing ice hockey. It costs me no less then $20 a session just to get on the ice, and that’s considered cheap by the way.. And that’s not including all your gear which is massively over priced. And then once you've paid your dues you then have to contend with a 100 other people on the ice. All trying to improve their game, get into our national league etc. - Such is my love of the game, and the country that gave birth to modern hockey, believe it or not.. I'm actually in the process of working hard and selling everything I own to start a new life in Canada, believe it or not.

So that answers your question about my love for hockey itself. Why did I decide to become a Jet's fan? Well, I guess you can't just have a love for hockey and the NHL, once you get involved in the game; you really need a team to root for right? And this was kind of a hard decision. There are many great teams to choose from and geographically I'm not really bound to any, but I wanted to go for a team I felt I had a connection with.

At first I thought, maybe due to my Irish heritage, I should go for Boston. But Boston is so mainstream. Heaps of people down here go for Boston. And despite the Irish connection, I didn’t feel really connected to Boston or its people. Perhaps because of this Canadian girls influence on me I tended to lean towards the Canadian teams and I guess there’s the whole commonwealth thing as well.

But in any case I stumbled upon a video on youtube a while back called "The Return of the Winnipeg Jets" and I have to say, when I watched that small movie, such was the effect of the story of the Jets and the Winnipeg community, I actually cried. I guess I could just relate to the team and the community. It was the under dog story that gripped me, the story of a small community who have been forced to live without the game they love for so long. I could completely relate to that, and as I said when I saw that, all of a sudden I found tears rolling down my face. NO sporting team has ever had that impact on me... and from that point on I became a Jets fan, through and through.

It just feels right.

Since the lock out finished I have not missed a game!! In fact I have pretty much watched every game I have managed to get my hands on, including games from the 80's and early 90's (again game centre is awesome for that stuff) and also watching the Atlanta Thrashers at times just to see where the current team has come from.

I continue to go for the Jets win or lose. My dream is to someday, one day get to the MTS centre and watch the Jets play. Again you guys have NO IDEA how lucky you are, to be Canadian, and to be living in Manitoba. And I think it's hard for local Jets fans to realize the impact the team and the community has had on even bronzed Aussies like me, never mind the Hockey world. I am an entire world away from my team, and I think its hard for someone from Manitoba to understand how a guy like me who has barely ever even seen snow in real life, can be as passionate about the Jets as I am. And sometimes I feel on the forums some of the die hard veteran fans get kind of perplexed a little when I start talking puck, because I guess they kind of feel like, how could someone like me so far from the community genuinely love the Jets. But I assure you my love for the Jets is as strong as any of the locals.

I currently sit here, on sunny Saturday waiting for Friday Night Hockey in Canada."

- Joshua Uniacke, Sydney Australia

How many more Josh’s are out there?

The Jets have a powerful story of redemption and rebirth. It’s this story of long odds along with the natural pull of hockey that seems to be transcending borders and climates. Maybe the idea of the sun kissed hockey fan isn’t so foreign after all, especially with Canadian women spreading hockey gospel throughout the globe like mad NHL Jesuits.

So ironically the fist victim of the famous "Sun Belt" experiment turns out to be the greatest tool in indoctrinating fans in the infamous "non traditional" markets. Perhaps there are Jets fans huddled around computers watching TSN Jets in Barcelona, Jerusalem, and Cape Town? Maybe kids with jets jerseys are playing street hockey in Manila? Maybe the greatest hope in growing the game doesn't lie below the Mason Dixon line, but across the date line?

Whatever the case may be, we know one thing; not all Jets fans need to plug in their cars.