The return of the Jets

Any self-respecting columnist writing on Canada cannot let this year saunter by without spending at least one—I pitched ten, but my editor emphasized one—column on the Winnipeg Jets. This story of prairie power should be trumpeted from the rooftops, but given the country’s current milieu of potential election fraud and economic perturbation, it’s tough to get in a word for a hockey team. And so, here’s a personal trip down memory lane for all those readers aching for some honest scribbling on the return of the Jets.

I swept into Winnipeg, Manitoba on the threshold of teenagerdom, staring stupefied at the flat land that stretched forever into the horizon. It was a far cry from the mountainous South African countryside of my childhood, and if I had not just finished a 32 hour plane journey, I might have hopped on the next flight back. But Manitoba was home now. Greasy John Deere baseball caps bobbing inside combines during summer, and kids who couldn’t yet walk, somehow skating through winter, would become part of everyday life. 

Although the process of understanding and appreciating a new culture was a steady one, there are two things I learned after roughly 24 hours in Manitoba: it is very, very cold, and the Jets are coming back. If the elderly gents in the diners weren’t talking about how low temperatures would plummet come November, they would be chatting about how inevitable it was that the Jets—cruelly relocated to Phoenix in ’96—would come back. Like a mourning but ever-hopeful father awaiting the prodigal son, Manitoba was in perpetual preparation for the return of the Jets. 

And so when it came to pass, in 2011, everyone was ready. Rumors had made their way through the fields, across the lakes, past the polar bears, and into the urban heart of Winnipeg since 2009, but now everyone knew for certain. And such a celebration ensued, the likes of which had not been seen since homegrown rock band The Guess Who were making international waves. Crowds gathered at the famed Forks, policemen smiled misty-eyed, and ‘tobans stuck in other parts of Canada stared longingly at the TV screens broadcasting the welcome tidings. 

The second half of this story is just as invigorating. Everyone expected that tickets to Jet games would fly off the shelves at twice the speed of limited edition Tim Hortons’ role-up-the-rim cups, but nobody was certain how the Atlanta team would perform in its new home. Commentators and columnists took one look at the team on paper and became stock market analysts. There seemed to be no way that the product could live up to its hype. Like the Blackberry playbook of the sports world, the Jets could turn out to be all glistening cover, but few stellar parts below the surface. 

But oh, how the naysayers weep now! There is a lot of hockey to be played, to be sure, but the Jets have excelled in their new home. As the Leafs and Habs saw their earlier successes nosedive into a whirlwind of coach replacements and disillusioned fans, the Jets have delivered strong performances that exhibit a good-looking whole, even if it is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s official: the Jets are back. 

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