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The Team That Haunts Us

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The Winnipeg Jets left Winnipeg in 1996, but the spirit that they brought out in Manitoba never left. Instead, that team still haunts Winnipeg today, reminding us of their glorious past and the team that was lost.

Marianne Helm

It was April 1998 and I was almost 5 years old. I was at my mom’s work one weekend and my dad was at the pool. Instead of going home, my sister and I went to my maternal grandparents, not knowing what was really happening. My paternal grandpa was in the hospital and died later that day. I don’t remember it, I was too young. My mom made a transcript of the speeches at the funeral and reading over them as I grew up I learned that the Winnipeg Jets were important to my grandfather and my aunt. They had season tickets and were huge fans of the team. The Jets were a connection that I had to the grandfather that I barely remember.

But what is there now? What connection to the past do I have? The year the Jets left I turned 3. I was 2 when they played their last game. I have no memories of my own. To me the Jets were a legend to me, something that everyone talked about, something that I saw evidence of, but that I could never have because I never remembered them

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The Forks was a special place when I was little. We used to go there every Sunday morning, meet my grandparents and have breakfast from Danny’s. I don’t remember much about those breakfasts except the tables were always wobbly. Some weeks we used to go up to the Fort Whyte Centre and buy a plastic animal for our collections. Other times we would go for walks along the river. I loved those days. I don’t remember the conversations though. I wish I did. If I did I bet the Save the Jets campaign was a normal topic for the adults. I bet they talked about sports a lot. You see, when I was little I didn’t want to be a princess or a fairy, I wanted to be a hutball (football) player. My parents never told me I couldn’t achieve that goal and even now that I’m 21 and working on getting both my BA and B.Ed, I still love that story today.

The Winnipeg Jets were not as important to me as the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The Winnipeg Jets weren’t in my conscience as long as the Bombers. I knew of the Jets from lore I heard; I knew of the Jets from merchandise I saw sold at little kiosks in the mall. The Winnipeg Jets were a ghost that haunted some of Winnipeg since the day they left. The fragments of my memory that remind me of the grandfather I barely knew are the same fragments that tie me to the Jets. The same fragments that I try to cling to, desperately try to hold onto.

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I was 15 and my parents sat us down. I knew from Christmas that my grandma was sick and that she had emphysema. A couple months later they found lung cancer that had spread to her whole body. She had months to live. I was devastated. Since I was 12 I had two grandparents; my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother. I was too young for this. I wasn’t ready for this. We would drive across town, 45 minutes each way to see her every weekend. We would bring her food, make sure she was comfortable. As school ended and summer hit us, we started spending more time at her house, sitting out on the deck talking and caring for her and her yard. She never left the house that she had lived in for around 50 years. 

We cling to things to hold us together in these times of need. We try to remain positive when faced with despair. The one thing that all six cousins talked about losing was Christmas cookies. Christmas cookies was a tradition that was hard to explain. Every year my grandma would get her six grandkids together and give them a batch of sugar cookie dough that we were to cut cookies out of and then decorate once the cookies were baked. Back when my grandfather was alive he would layer on the icing while helping us decorate the cookies. I don’t remember that, but my parents tell me it happened. Christmas cookies were the one day a year that you could guarantee that all six grandkids would be in the same room at the same time because we would always make time for Christmas cookies. They were are glue and we were uncertain if they would continue. They did, only because 16 year old me was set on it. It was all I had left.

Two years after the Christmas cookies shifted across town into the hands of a 16 year old who was trying to keep in touch with her cousins. It was all I could do to not feel completely sad about Christmas that year. It was 2009 and we still make cookies today.

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Fifteen years, almost my entire lifetime, the Jets had returned. The Jets were a fragment that Winnipeg clung to, maybe some clung to the Jets because of it allowed them to remember their childhood, maybe some clung to the Jets to keep the memories, the history, alive. Whatever the reason, the Jets of old remained in Winnipeg, a ghost that would haunt this city until they returned in 2011.

When you live in a city that is haunted there is a certain curiosity about the ghost. For 15 years I was told stories, fleeting memories actually, about the Jets. I heard about Ducky (Dale Hawerchuck) and I heard about Teemu (Selanne). I knew about Kitty-Cat (Randy) Carlyle, but until that day that the NHL returned here I hadn’t known what it was like to live in a NHL city and frankly, it doesn’t seem much different from before.

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There’s a sense of loss when thinking about the old Jets. Their uniforms were something I could draw (badly). They were the team that my grandfather cheered for. They great in the WHA and stuck in a great conference in the NHL. They were Winnipeg. They were a team that the whole province tried to save. A team who people were donating money to help local business owners buy the team. They were us, as broken as we all may be. 

The new Jets aren’t that team. They aren’t the team that once boasted names like Hawerchuck and Selanne; who once signed Bobbly Hull for 1 million dollars at Portage and Main. They aren’t the team that people fought so hard to keep. That team is in Arizona now. That team, that actual team came cruelly close to returning “home”. That team was one $25 million payment from Glendale away from returning. That team is the team that my grandpa cheered for. That team was the team that Winnipeg fought so hard to keep. That team has more of a connection to me than this team.

None of this is our fault. None of this reflects poorly on anyone. The Jets were a huge part of this city even when they weren’t physically here. Their presence lingered. For some that presence was a cruel reminder of what had been lost; for others that presence was a mystery. It was a mystery shrouded by stories and sometimes even grainy video on TSN. The story of Selanne’s record setting goal and his legendary celebration; the loss of the team. For some, those aren’t memories but stories that have been told enough times that they seem like memories.

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16 years ago when I lost my grandfather, I didn’t understand death that well. I didn’t understand that I really would never see him again. I have no real memories of him, just vague ideas about him, cultivated from family who remember him fondly. 18 years ago, around the same time my grandpa died, the Jets left town. The team, that team, would never return here. The team that would have held some sort of emotional tie to me, the team that would have been a fragment that I could hold onto and try to remember my grandpa with is not the team in this city. The team here now is another city’s team, another place where people can try to fight to keep the memory, and the dream alive.

At 4 I lost someone I loved and when I was 3 the city I live in lost something they loved. We try to move on, sometimes haunted by the ghosts that hang over us, trying desperately to keep a fleeting memory alive. When you are 3 you don’t have your own memories, instead you gain memories of that time from other people. You hear stories and you try to remember the events of that time. But you fail. I failed. I still fail at it. The stories of my grandpa that other people tell me paint a picture of a wonderful man. I have no memories of the Jets except for the ones that have been shared with me. The team sounded like a team I would cheer for; except they weren’t here when I wanted to cheer for a team. They were gone. They had been gone since I was 3. They were the team I never knew and the team that I never will know.

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The Winnipeg Jets are not the team that left here and there are some fans who cheer for them only from afar. They cheer for the Jets as their secondary team; a team that is in a city that they like or captured their imagination in their childhood. They cheer for a team that they have memories of, that they feel. They cheer for the team that they know, not the team that they grew up knowing a logo; a logo that is not used by the team anymore. There is a segment of fans here who did not flock to buy Jets merchandise upon their return because their team was still at home, in whatever city that is, waiting for those fans to voyage there to watch them play. There are other fans who remain fans of their team and still cheer for the Jets, but that joyful nothingness that a win can bring and that devastating feeling that a loss can bring are not there because their team, their actual team, is elsewhere.

Jets fans waited. They waited for 15 years. They waited through cold winters that never ended and hot summers that were always too short. They waited for Gary Bettman to fly here and say that the city had a team again. They waited again so they could get season tickets, so they could buy merchandise. They waited for their team, the team that had their history to come back. That never happened. And some fans never returned either.

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I've never asked my dad about how my grandpa reacted to the Jets leaving. I'm not sure I want to know. I want to preserve my knowledge of him to the stories that others share; stories of love and laughter. I do wonder if the right move was made in retaining the name but not the logo for the Jets. The memories that people have of the team were built on that logo. Even when I was in school the logo was ever-present; reminding us of what we once had and to keep on aspiring to have it again.

The Jets returned. But not the team that Winnipeggers knew and not the logo that everyone knew. No, the Jets returned. They returned as something real, something that Winnipeg could hold onto. The old Jets though, the Jets 1.0? That team, those players, the spirit that was here to try to save them never left.

The impact of the Jets 1.0 is lost on me because of my youth. The province fought to save them. They lost. There was devastation; there were tears. Winnipeg tried to move on, but never could get over the loss of a team that meant so much to a city that had so little. They were apart of us and they still are today, even if they left some of us with nothing to hold onto.

*This is a story that is deeply personal at many junctures. I have wrestled with the idea that the Jets have lost some fans due to their time away and the memories forfeited. I can speak only for myself, but I can only imagine that I am not alone in feeling like something is missing when people talk about the Jets of old.*