NHL Network Radio’s Mick Kern: “I Don’t Hate Winnipeg”

Winnipeg Arena

The Weakerthans have a great song titled “One Great City,” which both celebrates and laments their fate growing up in the capital city of Manitoba. Having never lived in the city, it’s not up to me to judge, but I can honestly say I don’t hate Winnipeg.

And I’ve been in that great city during all four seasons, particularly the hot summers that feature the nightly fogging trucks taking out the ubiquitous mosquitoes, and the long, cruel winters that lend justice to the pejorative label Winterpeg.

High school buddy Randy Heaslip and I used to have a running joke about Winnipeg. I grew up in Alberta, while he grew up in Eastern Ontario. Yet there we were in Ottawa, repeating the same jokes, and the same gags, long before the Internet became public. Popular culture was disseminated by the likes of MAD magazine, and the ever-present television set. Yet overnight, the same lame joke was being told in schoolyards right across the Dominion of Canada.

Which led us to the conclusion that some guy in Winnipeg was the originating source. Some dude in the middle of Canada, the Hub. He held dominion over the Dominion. And whenever we thought we had come up with something original, we’d shrug our shoulders and admit that some guy in Winnipeg had probably already thought of it.

Placed pretty much smack dab in the middle of the country, if you use an East-West axis, and near the longitudinal centre of North America, Winnipeg represents a whole bunch of everything. Once the banking capital of the new West, a place the railroad stopped, and the last chance for a really good meal before Vancouver, the capital city of the province of Manitoba derives its name from a Cree word for muddy water.

And water is a big part of the southern Manitoba experience. The mighty Red runs north, and joins with the Assiniboine at the Forks. The same Forks that are now a tourist attraction, and a fine one at that. The Red River Floodway helps divert the spring melt away from the city, but some flooding is usually unavoidable.

I may be one of the few people in Canada to willingly book a vacation in Winnipeg.  Summer of 2000. Wanted to see the Northern League’s Winnipeg Goldeyes in action at their cozy stadium where the Pan Am Games were held the year before, where Stubby Clapp helped to sink the Yanks with a crack of his bat.

We watched Dancing Gabe whip the crowd into a frenzy, and then cheered as former Houston Astros’ manager Hal Lainer led the boys to victory. We ate cheese nips at Sal’s, visited Louis Riel’s grave in Saint Boniface, talked to a record store owner about Burton Cummings dropping by to peruse the wares, took pictures of The Golden Boy atop the Legislature Building, and made the pilgrimage to Polo Park.

Polo Park, the home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the Winnipeg Jets. The good football folks actually allowed me into the dormant stadium, all by myself. Took a ton of pictures. Bought the t-shirt.

No such luck across the way at the legendary Winnipeg Arena. Home of the Jets. Home of the huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. We politely banged on the locked door, but the security guard waved us away. All I wanted was five minutes…and I would have bought the t-shirt. And hat. And pennant.

What I could glean from the front steps was enticing. Could just make out the portrait of the Queen and the top of the steep seats. It would have been a heck of an arena to watch a game in.

Both the arena and the football stadium are now gone, replaced by newer venues located elsewhere. While the Blue Bombers haven’t won the Grey Cup since 1990 (longest current drought in the Canadian Football League), the Jets have been thirstier for longer.

The class of the World Hockey Association (with Avco World Trophy championship wins in 1976, 1977, and the final one in 1979), once the Jets joined the NHL in 1979, that winning tradition came to a halt. The four WHA refugees were pretty much stripped of their better talent by NHL teams looking to lower the boom on the rebel league that was largely responsible for escalating player salaries.

The NHL Winnipeg Jets had a few moments of glory in the mid-1980s, but they always ran into the wall known as the Edmonton Oilers, a fellow WHA castaway. And the Jets always lost to Gretzky, and Messier, and Kurri, and Anderson, and Fuhr, and Moog, and Lowe, and Huddy, and crew.

They soldiered on, until the relocation buzzards began circling in the mid-1990s. People remember the Canadian NHL teams that moved, but Minnesota, and Hartford (another WHA refugee) also picked up and left. When the Quebec Nordiques limped out of town in 1995, and reinvented themselves at the Colorado Avalanche, the good burghers of Winnipeg fought the good fight.

They delayed the relocation execution by one year, and it cost a lot of money, but the buzzards were still overhead.  And after bowing out to the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the 1996 playoffs, the Jets took off, and landed in Arizona.

The fact that the greater Los Angeles area boasted two NHL franchises, and the centre of Canada had zero was a slap in the face to not only Canadian hockey fans, but true blue puck fans anywhere. One certainly wants to grow the game, including planting roots in non-traditional fields. But to abandon the heartland of hockey was unthinkable, but money talks.

The day the Jets officially moved to Phoenix, I recall telling a friend that they’d be back. Because money talks out of both sides of its mouth. Once the novelty of big-league hockey wore off in some of these untested markets, they’d be back knocking on the Canadian door, the eternal money machine. And like the jilted lover who can’t seem to say no to their ex, we’d be there with arms outstretched.

And that came to pass in 2011, though it was the eternally damned Atlanta market that once again coughed up an NHL team to Western Canada.

Winnipeg was very careful to play by the NHL rules, which explains why there were scant rumours about such a relocation happening. When it came to pass, and Thrashers became Jets (not the first choice for the name, but I’m sworn to secrecy about the preferred choice), Winnipeg, Manitoba, and much of Canada, rejoiced.

The Winnipeg Arena was long gone. Hockey’s Winnipeg home was now the MTS Centre (now known as the Bell MTS Centre…can’t keep up with these ever-changing corporate names), located downtown, in the former home of Eaton’s department store. Originally built for the AHL Manitoba Moose, the new barn holds just over 15 thousand for a hockey game, the smallest capacity in the NHL, but they make up for it with thirsty hockey fans who are willing to fork out big bucks to cheer on the home side.

A home side attired in white. The White Out. You can thank the Calgary Flames for this. They had the C of Red, and the Jets responded in kind. And it lives all these years later.

The word is the in-game experience in Winnipeg is the best in the league. And that’s saying something, because the likes of Nashville, and Columbus, all can lay claim to that red ribbon. No doubt the fans are passionate in those rinks, yet much of that in-arena frenzy still feels a bit like novelty. Hey, look how much noise we can make.

Not the case in Winnipeg. This isn’t just a sport to them, this is culture. Hockey matters, long after the Three Stars have been announced, and the skates have been put away for the summer.

Because the skates are never put away in Winnipeg. No, that’s not a joke about the seemingly never-ending Manitoba winters. Rather, it speaks of the immersion of hockey into day-to-day life. The Blue Bombers matter, the Goldeyes are fun to watch, but the Jets “are us”. Regardless of what their passports say. And like in Montreal, and Toronto, and Calgary, heck, any Canadian city, as well as many northern U.S. towns, hockey is as much a part of everyday life as bitching about the government, potholes, and taxes.

I’ve long contended there are three cities that I’d love to see win the Stanley Cup before I leave this Earth. Because the long-suffering fans in these cities deserve it. Buffalo, probably the greatest NHL market in the States. Minneapolis/St. Paul, because they love hockey in that state as much as any Canadian does, and Winnipeg.

The centre of Canada. More Western than Eastern, though the Bombers have often been flipped over to the CFL East Division when needed.

The home of the Guess Who, a criminally underappreciated rock band that should be in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

Where Neil Young really learned to rock.

Where I once had lunch at the famous Blue Note Café, talking hockey with members of Monuments Galore in the middle of August.

Where I once quit a band on a wintery, windy night in mid-November, walking through Portage and Main at 2 am without another soul in sight. That’s another story, but it’s so Winnipeg.

Where I was when the news broke that Flyers’ goaltender Pelle Lindbergh had died. Sitting at the counter of a downtown coffee shop, sampling a can of Cherry Coke that was being consumer tested in the city at the time, I turned to a stranger sitting beside me, and repeated the stunning news.

He put down his fork, glanced up at the TV, then said “He would have been as great as Bernie. And that’s what we need here. A great goaltender. What do you think”?

Because that’s Winnipeg. Arguably the home of the greatest hockey fans in the Great White North. The True North.  And they’re long overdue for a championship. The Stanley Cup.

Because the celebration wouldn’t last a month, wouldn’t last the summer, it wouldn’t just last through one of those seemingly unending Winnipeg winters. It would last forever.

Late afternoon, another day is nearly done. A darker gray is breaking through a lighter one. A thousand sharpened elbows in the underground. That hollow hurried sound of feet on polished floor, and in the Dollar Store the clerk is closing up, and counting Loonies, trying not to say, “I hate Winnipeg.” The driver checks the mirror, seven minutes late. The crowded riders’ restlessness enunciates that the Guess Who suck, the Jets were lousy anyway. The same route every day. And in the turning lane, someone’s stalled again. He’s talking to himself, and hears the price of gas repeat his phrase: “I hate Winnipeg.” And up above us all, leaning into sky, our Golden Business Boy will watch the North End die, and sing “I love this town,” then let his arcing wrecking ball proclaim, “I hate Winnipeg.”

© The Weakerthans 2003