First they put together the team. Then they practised. Hard. Finally, no longer strangers but tightly bonded teammates, they met as a group, devised their strategy for the coming season – and were ready to go.
No, we are not talking about the Winnipeg Jets here. This is what it took, in Manitoba this wild and crazy year, just to get tickets.
Geoff Brookes, an accountant, and Chuck Duboff, a retired English teacher, consider themselves among the blessed of Winnipeg, in that they are part of a small group of eight who will be sharing four seasons tickets in section P5 of the MTS Centre once the season begins on Oct. 9.
The two met for lunch Thursday to talk about their great triumph – tickets sold out in mere seconds on June 4, the Jets' computers recording some 280,000 hits in the moments after the website opened for business at noon local time.
Brookes came in his Teemu Selanne jersey – a tribute to the popular Finn who set a rookie scoring record (76 goals) with the original Jets – and Duboff wore the latest new gear, a sweatshirt and a new cap.
If fan is merely a derivative of fanatic, then these two are the illustration of the word, though they are hardly alike. Brookes, the accountant, has fond memories of attending old World Hockey Association Jets games with his father. His father and brother are also in on the tickets and he plans to pass the family tradition on to his own children.
Duboff is much more the fanatic. The retired teacher is also recipient of a 2006 provincial human rights award – just in case anyone was wondering if there is anything in his life but hockey – yet at times it seems a fair question to ask. He was there at the corner of Portage and Main with his girlfriend (later his wife, much later his ex-wife) in 1972 the day the WHA Jets handed that $1-million cheque to Bobby Hull. He held seasons tickets from Day 1. He wore an Ulf Nilsson jersey – No. 14 – to every game. They named their cocker spaniel Anders after Hull's and Nilsson's winger, Anders Hedberg, No. 15. They had their children photographed with the Jets' Dale Hawerchuk when he won the NHL's rookie award in 1982. At the end of the last Jets game played in Winnipeg in 1996, he stayed in his seats and wept until the stands had emptied.
He, oddly enough, was never a believer. Even when rumours swirled that a team – likely Phoenix, where the original Jets had gone, or perhaps Atlanta – might have to relocate to Winnipeg, he held off. "I didn't want to get hurt again." He had never watched the NHL again after 1996.
But then, after Stephen Brunt of The Globe and Mail broke the story this past spring that the Thrashers would be leaving Atlanta for Winnipeg, he became, once again, a total Jets nut. He broke out the Cuban cigars he had been keeping for a special occasion, met his met friend Brookes – whom he had connected with through JetsOwner.com, a fan website – down at the corner of Portage and Main where fans had gathered to cheer and sing, and they stood and smoked and began working on their strategy.
How could they nail down tickets when thousands of others would be doing the same?
They put together their team of eight. It includes an equal fanatic, Darryl Mills of Cochrane, Alta., who also says he cried when the team left. "It ripped my heart out," said Mills, who grew up in Winnipeg.
"I knew how much that team meant to Winnipeg. I love that city, but losing the Jets left a palpable emptiness, a hole, a void – it was heartbreaking."
The group devised a plan. They set up a checklist. In the days leading up, Geoff and his brother practised dancing through the Web pages they would need to fill out before placing an order. Geoff's sister-in-law, Shauna, came up with a few keyboard tricks to allow them to jump more quickly between pages.
The key to their strategy, they now believe, is that they keyed on middling seats in a specific section, presuming others would chase the best seats and then work their way back.
As the noon deadline neared, Duboff grew nervous. He later told the Winnipeg Free Press he could only pace as he waited, convinced they wouldn't get in. When he got an e-mail at 12:11, he said, "I let out a scream I'm sure was heard right across the city."
It wasn't cheap. Each ticket is worth about $3,000 and each required a further $750 deposit to show a commitment for five years.
"But they have monthly payments!" Duboff shouts. "I pay $120 a month and have seasons tickets – how Winnipeg is that?"
Darryl Mills felt vindication when they nailed the tickets. "I feel like I was cheated," he says of the 1996 loss, which was blamed on poor economic conditions, a bad arena and a weak dollar – all situations that no longer prevail.
"I'll be going to the home opener as a 38-year-old man, but I know that for the entire game I'm going to feel like a 15-year-old kid again."
The only thing that could make all this even better, Duboff and Brookes said over lunch, would be if somehow Selanne, the former Jet who is now 41, would play one more year with the Anaheim Ducks.
Selanne had been an outspoken player when he was still with the Jets, saying he personally never wished to see the team leave Winnipeg. The night the Ducks come to town, Dec. 17, both Brookes and Duboff hold the game tickets.
If Selanne happened to still be playing, they said, it would guarantee the longest standing ovation this city has ever seen.
Shortly after their lunch was done, word came that, indeed, Selanne had just signed with the Ducks for what is almost surely his final season – meaning he will indeed be coming back to Winnipeg.
"It's like a Cinderella story," Brookes said.
"A dream that doesn't end."