John Lu: The Winnipeg Blank: What's in a name?

John Lu
6/5/2011 7:44:27 PM
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If there's one thing I've learned about Winnipeg from having grown up there, it's that its citizens are fiercely proud of what they consider the fabric of their community. Sure, we soldier through long, cold winters and slap ourselves silly in the summers to kill persistent swarms of mosquitoes. However, if anybody belittles our city because of the aforementioned sterotypes, woe befall he who does so out of ignorance or spite. Or so we see it. It's okay for Winnipeggers to criticize our home, but you better not.

For that reason, I am not surprised that Winnipeggers are overwhelmingly insisting on resurrecting the name "Jets". For the vast majority, it is not an option to accept or even consider a different nickname.

Over the past few months as the NHL's return to Winnipeg drew closer to reality, I've been observing the blogs, Facebook posts and my colleague Jay Onrait (a temporary, but honorary Winnipegger) all lobbying the "Jets" cause. I have come to believe it is not actually the name that Winnipeg hockey fans cling to, but rather, what the Jets symbolize to them.

That is, the nickname is a vehicle for the sentiments that accompany the Jets being a part of their community and lives.

They are attached to the ritual of going to Jets games with Dad or Mom or brother or sister. There was something quintessentially "Winnipeg" about going back to an icy car at Polo Park and running the engine for 15 minutes to warm it up, but not caring because they had their Jets pennants in hand and the satisfaction of cheering their team to victory. It's a ritual as comfortable, familiar and warm as Sunday dinners and road trips to Grand Forks, North Dakota to shop at Target.

They are attached to their first experience as armchair GMs or budding entrepeneurs when they and their classmates would hoard Jets hockey cards for some far less attractive player. It's the only time in the real world that one could acquire Dale Hawerchuk or Teemu Selanne for a fourth line winger without having to throw in a draft choice, unless you consider the leathery, pink bubble gum, coated with clammy white powder the equivalent of future considerations. Future considerations like tooth decay.

They are attached to the memory of going to a Jets game on a date with somebody they ended up marrying. When they tell people the story of how they met, they recount the score of the game (as if it mattered to a lovestruck young couple) and how massive the Queen's portrait appeared when they took their seats, arms laden with popcorn, hot dogs and soda.

They are attached to the funnest, craziest time they ever had at a live event when thousands of fans, clad in white and waving towels in unison, would scream at the tops of their lungs at Jets playoff games in the late '80s through mid '90s. Those crazy times were even more cherished for the rare games in which the Jets beat the mighty (and hated) Oilers and Flames.

They are attached to the sadness of the impending reality of their team being ripped from their tight embrace, when tens of thousands of fans rallied together in May 1995 to futilely prevent the Jets from leaving. They can't bear to sacrifice the connection of the Jets to the proud stories of kids emptying their piggy banks and exotic dancers offering their tip money to put in the pot to save their team.

I get it. I understand it, and I empathize with those intense feelings because I have my own great memories that I accumulated from the Jets being a part of my hometown.

I remember watching Patrick Roy skate out onto the ice in the bleu, blanc et rouge he would soon refuse to don any longer. I witnessed Wayne Gretzky becoming the first player to reach the 2,000-point plateau while wearing the Kings' black and silver. For both of those games, I was with a childhood buddy whom I've known since kindergarten and who was eventually the best man at my wedding.

I once saw Norris Trophy winner Randy Carlyle walking through the bowels of Winnipeg Arena after a game and was surprised that he was not as tall as he appeared in televised games. Years later as a TSN reporter, I would meet Carlyle, the Anaheim Ducks head coach at the 2007 Western Conference Final. I told him that I used to be a big fan of his when I was a teenager. Yeah, that made him feel young.

Having the Jets in Winnipeg allowed me to spot Chris Chelios hanging out at the Rorie Street Marble Club after a Canadiens road game. I didn't approach him because he appeared to be busy, beer in hand and checking out the action. Of course, he was having far more success than my friends and I were.

In their last season in the WHA, the Jets held their training camp at Dutton Arena on the grounds of my high school alma mater, St. John's Ravenscourt. During recess or after lunch, I would go autograph hunting and managed to meet the likes of Morris Lukowich, Terry Ruskowski and Kim Clackson. As a naïve school kid, I couldn't fathom how Ruskowski could possibly play just as hard for the Chicago Blackhawks as he did for my hometown team after Winnipeg lost him in the reclamation draft upon entering the NHL. Those were lean times -- the Jets' roster raided and laid bare and the team learning to crawl in the big league.

So, yes, I have an attachment to the Jets for a variety of reasons, but I am willing to let go of the name.

Part of that willingness comes from the fact that the Jets won only two of thirteen playoff series in their original NHL incarnation. They also currently hang in limbo in the Sonoran Desert. Not exactly a glowing legacy or dignified end.

That crystallizes the sober fact that the Jets haven't come back to Winnipeg; NHL hockey has. Maybe it's time to consider sacrificing the name "Jets", but commit to holding on to the memories. Those can never be taken away. Please be prepared to accept without bitterness that True North Sports and Entertainment may want to usher in a fresh era under a different monicker, not just capitalize on a marketing opportunity.

Be open to a new name for your hockey team and to creating attachments and memories that can be an extension of your Jets, but also a brand new hockey identity for your infants and toddlers, whom you'll likely clad in tiny hockey jerseys and take to the MTS Centre once they are old enough to attend games.

Be as open to a new name for your hockey team as you are inviting, hospitable and courteous to visitors, strangers and each other. Because if there's another thing I've learned about Winnipeg from having grown up there, it's that its citizens' arms are always wide open to somebody new to their community and it doesn't matter what the newcomer's name is.

John Lu is TSN's Montreal Bureau Reporter and a long-time Winnipegger

Winnipeg Jets fans (Photo: The Canadian Press)


(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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