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.
“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.