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A Winnipeg Jets fan arrives at the MTS Centre for the Jets' NHL pre-season game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Winnipeg, September 20, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Greenslade (Fred Greenslade/Reuters)
A Winnipeg Jets fan arrives at the MTS Centre for the Jets' NHL pre-season game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Winnipeg, September 20, 2011. REUTERS/Fred Greenslade (Fred Greenslade/Reuters)

Roy MacGregor

Hockey is in Manitoba's blood Add to ...

Prove ’em wrong.

That, not gloriosus et liber – glorious and free – should be the motto of Manitoba.

The history of this area is a history of overcoming the seemingly impossible, right from the aboriginals who mastered this unkind climate to the Selkirk Settlers who came here in 1813 – sailing through the north and wintering on Hudson Bay before trekking here with their supplies – and even the forcing of provincial status itself in 1870.

It could also be the mantra of hockey in Manitoba: forever up against the doubters, forever having to prove ’em wrong.

If they need it in Latin, perhaps the provincial motto could be sibi fidens – trusting in oneself.

It is the story of the 1896 Stanley Cup champion Winnipeg Victorias and the 1920 Olympic champion Winnipeg Falcons, all lovingly recounted in Richard Brignall’s Forgotten Heroes: Winnipeg’s Hockey Heritage.

Given that we are less than a week from the reborn Winnipeg Jets’ NHL home opener against the Montreal Canadiens, it might be useful to remind outsiders of Winnipeg hockey’s experience with Eastern arrogance.

Hockey came later to this part of the country – there are accounts of shinny being played on the Red River in the winter of 1886-87 – but it caught on so fast that in 1892-93 a team of Manitoba all-stars was dispatched east to see what might be learned from the Eastern inventors and masters of what would become the national game.

“The idea,” the Montreal Gazette noted, “of Winnipeg hockey men playing in Montreal with anything like a chance of winning is so far out of the way that it is hardly worthy of consideration.”

Montreal teams were used to paying expenses for teams coming from Ontario – yet refused the same courtesy to Manitobans. “This is all very well for Ontario,” rationalized the clubs, “but in Montreal there is no reason why we should guarantee expenses … we don’t think we can learn anything from Winnipeg.”

Ha! Lesson No. 1: Never, ever tell people from Manitoba it’s useless.

Fired up, the all-stars went first to Toronto and whipped Osgoode Hall 11-5, then beat Queen’s University in Kingston. They lost in Ottawa and Montreal, but finished with a record of eight wins in 11 games and outscored their opponents 70-37.

By 1896, these upstarts thought they could challenge for the Stanley Cup. The Victorias headed off to Montreal and, in a two-game series, Montreal couldn’t even threaten, losing 1-0 and 2-0. Fans gathered in hotels to listen to reports coming over the telegraph and erupted in a frenzy when it was over.

Travel on more than a century and the same show-’em ethos is found throughout Back In The Bigs: How Winnipeg won, lost and regained its place in the NHL, by the Winnipeg Free Press’s award-winning Randy Turner.

One small chapter in this colourful and beautifully written book tells the story of Craig Heisinger, who seems to embody the notion of can-do Prairie resilience.

The little man they call “Zinger” began his hockey life as a 22-year-old heading off in his pickup truck – brand-new sewing machine in the back – to become equipment manager for the junior hockey Brandon Wheat Kings.

He lived in a trailer park and taught himself first aid through books. He never stopped believing he could have a life in hockey, even from such humble beginnings. He was good enough that he was taken on as a trainer for the 1988 world junior championship, then hired to work in for the Jets’ minor-league team in Moncton. They brought him up to work with the NHL team and he was there, vacuuming the dressing room in tears, after the Jets played their final game in 1996 and left for Phoenix.

Zinger could have gone, too, but he refused, preferring to stick it out in Winnipeg with the steadfast belief that, one day, the NHL would have to come back to where hockey truly matters.

He worked for the Manitoba Moose – the minor-league team that replaced the Jets – and was soon assistant general manager, then full GM of the franchise considered “the gold standard” of the AHL. When the Jets finally returned, 15 years after they left, he was offered the GM position but declined, preferring to stay closer to the players and dressing room as director of hockey operations.

He got to introduce the new general manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, whom he had first spotted when Cheveldayoff tried out for the Wheat Kings and Zinger was the guy cleaning the jerseys. When they stick together out here, they stick fast.

The reborn Jets may turn out to be more stubborn than skilled, but it will be a profoundly different team than the team that went unnoticed and nowhere in Atlanta.

Simply by dint of location.

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