Opinion » Pique'n Yer Interest

How do you love a zombie?



I'll admit, the Winnipeg Jets weren't at the forefront of my hockey attention during their first stint in Manitoba's capital.

My surname was on the back of an NHL jersey. It was one of the first on the teal and silver of San Jose, and was announced on TV as late in the season as the 1997 Stanley Cup Final after being stitched onto the Philadelphia Flyers' orange and black.

Having a career to follow in that of my third cousin, Pat Falloon, helped me feel the loss of Jets 1.0 less severely. They were missed, for sure, but I found myself ready and able to watch the world's best league, unlike so many others who bitterly and understandably swore it off.

But the 1999-2000 season was the last time 'Falloon' was uttered by an NHL play-by-play announcer and my rooting interests were in flux.

I defaulted to the Edmonton Oilers, with whom Patty had enjoyed a brief late-career resurgence and whom I'd actually romanced in 1997 as my Western love when speed demon Todd Marchant led Edmonton to an upset of heavily favoured Dallas. Had I been born a few years earlier, such an interest would have been forbidden, as the Edmonton dynasty of the 1980s interfered with any glory the original Jets would have enjoyed.

But I was three the last time the Oilers were any good. It didn't matter to me.

My support had its moments — another plucky Oilers squad came within one game of their sixth title in 2006 after making the postseason by the skin of their teeth. But it would have been something to be a part of the excitement fans enjoyed on Whyte Avenue, or even on Calgary's Red Mile two years earlier when they, too, shocked the hockey world.

Well, five years later, I descended on Portage and Main at the heart of Winnipeg on the last day in May. It was only the eve of the Stanley Cup Final, but the euphoria was close enough. And the victory, arguably, was greater than winning the cherished Cup, for a slim chance of a local team bringing it home became possible. Earlier in the day, commissioner Gary Bettman — vilified in Winnipeg for letting the original Jets escape to Phoenix in 1996 — announced a local group had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers with the intention of moving them north.

There was a rabid acceptance and approval of this zombie team. You couldn't go anywhere in the province without having the altered Royal Canadian Air Force roundel logo greet you.

But for the first three seasons, the newly undead preyed primarily on those who loved it, showing enough promise to get fans thinking about hockey beyond Game No. 82 of the regular season, but never quite delivering. After slowly severing the old parts that festered in the Georgia heat and replacing them with newer and more useful pieces, the Jets were set to gnaw more on the competition than themselves these past six months.

And when playoff hockey was officially guaranteed to return for the first time in 19 years last Thursday night, April 9, the Winnipeg faithful once again blew into the windiest corner in Canada to celebrate.

The joy, of course, faced criticism from fans of the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and, in a great fit of irony, Toronto Maple Leafs, as they all denounced the proceedings.

"You should expect to make the playoffs," they all said. "It's not something to celebrate."

Well, you can't win the race if you don't have a horse in it. No modern Canadian host has felt the agony and the ecstasy quite so starkly. Ottawa lacked a team for about 60 years before the Senators were reborn in 1992. Vancouver was technically never represented in the National Hockey League proper before the Canucks were welcomed into the loop in 1970. However, like many Canadian cities, Vancouver did celebrate a Stanley Cup before the NHL officially came to be in 1917, as the Millionaires brought one home in 1915 — a victory currently being commemorated with beautiful burgundy jerseys.

And Winnipeg, too, had its due. The Victorias were the first team outside of Montreal to bring home the trophy in 1896, and won again in 1901 and 1902.

Like the old Canucks were a top-flight Western Hockey League team, winning four Lester Patrick Cups, the old Jets were the toast of the World Hockey Association (WHA), winning three of its seven Avco Cups.

But when the WHA folded in 1979 after the Jets defeated the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers for the final trophy, they were brought into the NHL and Lord Stanley beckoned once again. He was never answered as Edmonton and Calgary tended to greet him.

He returned for a day here and there — Manitobans like Darren Helm of Detroit and superstar Jonathan Toews of Chicago have lifted the shining silver above their heads in victory in recent years.

But when the Jets start hunting the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night, April 16, for the first time in two decades, Winnipeg will begin its first championship chase based on the front — not the back — of a jersey.

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