Winnipegers are sad and beautiful. So is their city, and so, once, was their hockey team. I'll never forget my first visit there during the Rheostatics' 1987 tour. We stayed for seven days - not by design, but because of poor routing and a novice booking agent - but it wasn't moments after our first show that we were being invited to crash on someone's parents' living-room hide-a-bed, eat from their fridge, watch the game on the big screen at the Downtowner or take their sister to the movies. Early evening on our last day in the city produced a deep and sad goodbye, not only because we weren't sure when we'd be returning, but because our new friends had seen this played out before. Winnipeg has traditionally been the most welcoming city in Canada for visiting artists. And we show our gratitude by leaving before autumn snaps a hood to its parka.
I was thinking about this first visit in 1996, when I sent $35 to the Save the Jets campaign, and I was thinking about it yesterday, too. Fifteen years ago I donated to the cause because if not for the Winnipeg Jets, hockey as we know it might never have existed. It was Hockey Canada - founded in the River City in the 60s - that first invited the Russians, and the rest of the Eastern bloc, to compete in Manitoba, and it was the WHA Jets who first signed Europeans to play for their team, creating an open and free game - the kind of game that still gives us pause, that renews our trust in the beauty and grace and power of the sport. But in 1996, it wasn't enough. The league - and the league's young commissioner, Gary Bettman - overlooked these contributions, allowing the Jets to move to Phoenix. Like my group in '87, the team came and went. A small rock band leaving town is one thing, but a cultural and sporting legacy disappearing is another.
For me, hockey and Winnipeg have been inextricably linked. On that first trip we were taken by fans to Jimmy Skinner's diner and Bill Mosienko's bowling alley. We were brought to the Hockey Hutch - Canada's foremost equipment graveyard - and shown the patches of ice where Carey Wilson and Terry Sawchuck had learned to play. The following year we were heading west out of Thunder Bay after 20 hours of driving, listening to Minutemen and 13 Engines cassettes. Arriving just after noon, we spilled out of the van onto Portage Avenue, where we were besieged by a TV crew. Confusing this for some sort of media fanfare, I was astonished when the reporter asked me what I thought of Wayne Gretzky getting traded to Los Angeles. Having been sealed in our vehicle for the past day, it was the first we'd heard of the trade. I think I told her, "I hate Wayne Gretzky," and my answer made the 6 o' clock news, which we watched later that day at the Buckingham Hotel - a strip joint - blocks away from our show at the Royal Albert Hotel. My antipathy towards Wayne was impulsive. But it's unlikely that Gary Bettman would have found a home in the desert for Winnipeg had 99 not found his in the hills of Los Angeles.
After the Jets left, Canadians wondered what would become of the city, but Winnipegers knew better. In the wake of the team's relocation, the city proved resilient. The Albert Street corridor, the Forks, Osbourne Village and the city's two great live music venues - the West End Cultural Centre and the Burton Cummings Theatre - thrived. The era produced Winnipeg's most honest, if not its greatest, band - the Weakerthans - as well as the Peanuts and Corn hip hop movement and a tide of fine writers, Miriam Toews and David Bergen among them. The ground-breaking films of Guy Maddin and the work of the Royal Art Lodge drew an international milieu to the city. At first, people wondered how the loss of the Jets would affect Winnipeg minor hockey, but Canadian hockey's greatest young leader - Jonathan Toews, the French-speaking Mennonite Olympic gold medalist, Stanley Cup champion and Blackhawks captain - showed that the Prairie town's resilience didn't end in the clubs and galleries.
Winnipegers are sad and beautiful, and so is their city, but whenever the light finds them, it shines hard, partly because of the endlessness of the skies and partly because of the capacity of people to harbour that light, to store and preserve it and use it until the last bit of warmth escapes. There are a lot of reasons why Winnipeg deserves to host an NHL hockey team, why today we should pause a moment to celebrate and toast what is certainly a great day in Canadian hockey. That Winnipeg grew despite the shadows, and flourished in the face of its loss, is the most important. And the most beautiful.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Dave Bidini's 10th book, Writing Gordon Lightfoot: The Man, the Music and the World in 1972, will be published this October by M&S.
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