Our Game

Fans forgive and forget as the puck (finally) drops on the NHL season

SCHANZENFELD, MAN. — The Globe and Mail

Meghan and Brady Simpson dress their son Blake in a new Winnipeg Jets jersey and hat. Jets fans are among the most loyal in the NHL, but everywhere, it seems, fans are happy to have hockey back. (JOHN WOODS/GLOBE AND MAIL)

The home of the Winnipeg Jets is in a country basement on the outskirts of Winkler, Man.

Here in the lower floor of Jeremy Harder’s two-year-old house is a stunningly exact, one-sixth-scale replica of the MTS Centre, to which the Atlanta Thrashers relocated last year and where, today in Winnipeg, the reborn Jets will meet the Ottawa Senators to open the shortened 2013 season.

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“It’s going to be like a second honeymoon,” Harder predicts.

The first honeymoon was the Canadian NHL story of 2012: the Jets back after a 15-year hiatus, with seasons’ tickets selling out so fast it crashed the computers.

Winnipeg may be the most dramatic state of post-lockout forgiveness in the country, but it appears the Manitoba city is not unique in turning the raised fists of little more than a week ago into the high fives of this weekend.

While 5,000 people showed up for the Jets’ first open practice this week, 17,000 showed up for the open practice of the Montreal Canadiens. The Ottawa Senators’ home opener Monday night against the Florida Panthers is sold out – something that would have been unimaginable had the game been but a midseason January match.

And this has been a tale told in seven different ways in the seven Canadian NHL cities after the bitter four-month lockout.

Perhaps it is pent-up demand, perhaps it is the time of year and the weather – short, cold days where the return of a familiar distraction is a cause for celebration as well as forgiveness, some of it quite surprising to those who expected otherwise.

Though hockey, particularly professional hockey, has its disparagers, and deserves the scrutiny it has come under for violence and injury, it is all the same a game that has a grip like no other on this country’s soul. This truth was evident long, long before Stompin’ Tom Connors wrote The Hockey Song or the Canadian mint decided to put kids playing shinny on the back of the five-dollar bill. If the Americans wish to tie their currency to God, Canadians will tie theirs to their own peculiar religion.

Before Lester Pearson became prime minister of Canada, he told a London audience that hockey had become as much a national symbol as the maple leaf or the beaver. Perhaps he shortchanged the winter game, as maple leaves are not found everywhere in Canada, nor is the beaver. Love of hockey, it appears, is.

“Most young Canadians,” he added, “in fact, are born with skates on their feet rather than with silver spoons in their mouths.”

This weekend, in rinks in Montreal (vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs), Vancouver (vs. Anaheim Ducks on Saturday, Edmonton Oilers on Sunday), Calgary (Sunday against the San Jose Sharks) and Winnipeg (vs. Ottawa), those mouths will be filled with hockey cheers as well.

The story is similar across the country – anger, even fury, at the league owners and players for their greedy squabbling, but the local team excused and embraced.

“It feels like it did last October,” said an ecstatic Harder as he and his two boys – Cole, 9, and Kade, 6 – warmed up in the basement MTS while waiting for the puck to drop in the real MTS.

To suggest Winnipeg Jets fans are fanatical is to shortchange the word. Even Kade Harder’s middle name is “Jet.”

The Harder basement rink has a scoreboard – Winnipeg 3, Montreal 0 – and even a replica of the portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II that hung in the old Winnipeg Arena where the original Jets played before their disastrous relocation to Phoenix.

Then there is Blake Simpson, the Lockout Baby.

Born as the 2012 Stanley Cup was being decided, he is a lifelong Jets fan – as it appears on his father Brady’s Twitter account, “Goo Jets Goo!” – and will be sitting high in section 214 when this season finally gets under way, wearing enough Jets gear between Blake and Brady to open their own souvenir store.

Blake’s mother Meghan will be in the couple’s other seat, just as committed. She even says, a bit tongue-in-cheek, that the Jets played a part in Blake’s existence: She was a member of Leafs Nation, Brady a passionate fan of the Ottawa Senators, and their dates often became debates over the bitter Battles of Ontario.

“It was better for our marriage that the Jets came back,” she says.

“We didn’t have to fight anymore,” Brady agrees.

The Simpsons have just purchased a home in Brandon so that Brady can be closer to his job at the McCain’s french-fry processing factory in Carberry, but they have no plans to give up their $7,300-a-year tickets, despite the two-hour drive to the Jets games.

During the lockout, Brady says he went through the emotions the media talked about, and he believed they might last even after it ended.

“I was angry,” he says. “I was pissed off. I was happy the season was going to be scratched. But then they got an agreement and after a couple of hours I was happy, I was excited. People were saying we should boycott, but in Winnipeg you can’t boycott, because the next guy over is waiting to take your tickets.”

“Everybody loves hockey too much in Winnipeg,” Meghan adds. “All is forgiven.”

Geoff Brookes, a Winnipeg accountant who has been a Jets fan since the World Hockey Association days of the 1970s, says there is reason for this, and that it lies deep in the core of the Winnipeg soul. This is a city, he says, that once had visions of grandeur – it was seen as second only to Chicago as a mid-west power – and slipped badly.

The loss of the NHL team in 1996 was seen as confirmation of its failed status, until True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns the MTS Centre, convinced the league to try Winnipeg again.

“The euphoria over the return of our Jets will last a very long time,” Brookes says. “It represents the return of all the hockey memories and the promise of a bright hockey future. It restores our pride in our city and our province. For many of us in Winnipeg and Manitoba that feel this way, the lockout was a side story.”

“The attitude was ‘We’ve waited 15 years – what’s another four months?’” says Winnipeg Free Press sportswriter Tim Campbell.

That may well explain Winnipeg, but what explains Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, where four months of fury toward the NHL and its players appeared to evaporate like a bad smell in an elevator once the doors opened? In a new national Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll, 66 per cent said they would watch just as much hockey as they did before.

Roch Carrier, the beloved author who wrote the story The Hockey Sweater, whose words grace that $5 bill with the kids playing, has said that, if you are a Canadian, “Hockey is life.”

What does that really mean? “In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold,” Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane wrote shortly before the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series, “hockey is the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.”

This fall’s celebrations of that 40-year-old series ran counter to the anger Canadians felt toward the league and players for denying them their “dance of life.” And it may just be that the re-arrival of hockey in the bleakest time of year, so cold and so dark, has allowed Canadians to somehow compartmentalize their strong feelings for hockey.

Be mad still at commissioner Gary Bettman and the greedy billionaire owners that shut out the players. Be disappointed still at the millionaire players who fled, laughing, to Europe to take the jobs of those who needed them more.

But do not take it out on the game itself – and certainly not, we tend to think, on the home team that, surely, could not have been caught up in such childishness and greed, and only wished to play the game they had played since childhood.

Naive, for sure. Self-delusionary, likely. But no less true for its flaws. The home team can be nothing but good and clean and devoted and, fingers crossed, better this year than last.

“There definitely was a different feeling around town,” says Jets captain Andrew Ladd. “Just going out shopping or to a restaurant, a lot of excitement now that everyone’s going to have something to follow and watch and take pride in again. We as players realize we’re a big part of this town and we appreciate the support.”

Ladd, who stayed and practised in Winnipeg during the lockout, wasn’t sure that this would be the case, especially in those dark days in December when it seemed the league and its players were determined to deep-six the season out of greed and spite for each other.

“Second lockout in seven years?” Ladd says. “You put fans through that – and there were still NHL fans here even though they didn’t have a team – and there are people who were going to be sour – and rightfully so.

“It’s such a hockey-crazy city, you figured they would come back the same way that they were last year, but you never know,” he adds. “You put people in that situation and you don’t really know. We’re lucky that they’ll come back in full force and this place will again be one of the best places to play in the NHL.”

Jets centre Bryan Little, who also stayed and practised in the city, says he was never accosted or insulted about the lockout. “It was more just, ‘Okay, get back to work as soon as you can,’” he says. “They were pretty supportive. They were just disappointed that they had finally got their team back and now they couldn’t watch them play. That frustrated a lot of people. … I think it would have been a lot worse if we had lost the whole season.”

Winnipeg, Little says, “is kind of a place where, especially for a player, there’s not much else to do apart from play hockey and come to practice. The fans really hold onto that. I think that’s why they get so caught up in it. It’s a small city and there’s not a lot to do and there’s not a lot of teams, so it’s big.

“Everyone’s happy now.”

And not only, it appears at least this weekend, in Winnipeg. But right across the nation.

Perhaps no writer has ever understood Canada better than Bruce Hutchison, who coincidentally was associate editor of the Winnipeg Free Press in the years in which his book, The Unknown Country, so perfectly defined Canada.

“I would be the last to disparage the genius of the politicians who make our laws,” Hutchison wrote around that time, “the writers who make our books, the artists who make our pictures, but in gauging the true culture of the nation and reckoning its tensile strength, let the student not neglect hockey.”

This hockey story – the week between utter contempt for the league and its players and total embrace of the Canadian teams again – is something that could be studied for an eternity.

Which is why it is best not to wonder why, but merely to drop the puck. In wonder.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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