Out of the black and into the blue

The Jets aren’t just a hockey team, they’re Winnipeg incarnate

Ayame Ulrich

If I had a time machine, the first place I’d see would be Winnipeg a hundred years ago.

The reason is simple: I want to know what it was like to live in a Winnipeg that never needed defending.

I want to experience my hometown as the place where everyone wanted to be. The place that other cities not only envied, but wanted to emulate.

I want to see what Winnipeg was, with the knowledge of what it now is.

“It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”
- Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark

Winnipeg’s identity and, in a sense, its character has changed so much since its inception that it’s hard to even imagine what it was like such a short time ago.

In some ways, we’re like a fighting prodigy who ascends the ranks only be knocked out in the title match.

We try desperately to return to that glory, only to get knocked down again and again. The more we try, the older we get, and the bigger the challenge becomes.

The media tells us we should give up. After all, few people get more than one shot.

The story of Winnipeg is eerily similar to that of its hockey team, the Winnipeg Jets.

As the city was born with resounding promise, so was the team.

Those old enough to remember will tell of the day Bobby Hull was signed and paraded down Portage Avenue. They’ll tell of the dream team of Hull, Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Kent Nilsson.

They’ll talk of the three WHA AVCO Championships in four years, and they’ll tell of the day it all ended.

For the city, our defining year was 1915, when the Panama Canal opened and ended our promise as a transportation hub.

For the Jets, it was 1979, when the team was assimilated by the NHL, and all but three of our players were poached by the league, never to be champions again.

Those old timers will also tell of the miserable ’80-’81 season when our Jets posted a 30-game losing streak, and only won nine games all season.

This is where Winnipeg’s now-famous underdog status became solidified.

“The dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive.”
-Pvt Joker, Full Metal Jacket

When the Jets inevitably packed their bags and headed south in 1996, I remember the feeling of being erased.

In many ways, it felt like the Jets were our representatives on the world’s stage, and now we had nothing to fill that void.

Everywhere it felt like we were having a wake for our dearly departed friend, and trying to make sense of where to go from here.

The Jets were no longer a hockey team, but a symbol of Winnipeg as a whole. As we fought to bring back the Jets, it felt like we were fighting to bring back Winnipeg.

As we yelled “Go Jets Go” at any and every sporting event we could find, we weren’t just cheering on a deceased team, but a forgotten city.

We needed to prove that we were still alive, even if we weren’t in the fight anymore.

We know we’re the underdogs, but that’s just the way we like it. We know the importance of staying in the fight, and now that we’re back in the ring, we won’t be lying down anytime soon

“I’ve been dead before.”
- Spock, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

The unthinkable has happened - the Jets have returned.

Now when I see a Jets logo, it’s different. For 15 years, the oft-reprinted and proudly worn Jets logo was a symbol to me of Winnipeg’s refusal to give up on itself, even when it felt that everyone else had.

It was a symbol of our fighting spirit that would never be defeated.

Today it is a symbol of what we can achieve if we never give up fighting. It’s a symbol of Winnipeg’s rebirth, and defiance against those who dismissed us.

More so, I’m experiencing something I haven’t felt in a while: childish optimism.

When I see young kids now lining up to get an autograph from their favorite Jet, I think back to when I was 10 years old and getting to meet Bob Essensa at the mall.

The future was so bright then.

It didn’t matter that the Jets were having a dismal season that year. What mattered was that we were in the fight.

Now Winnipeg’s back.

We know we’re the underdogs, but that’s just the way we like it. We know the importance of staying in the fight, and now that we’re back in the ring, we won’t be lying down anytime soon.

The gloves are off. Win or lose, I can’t think of a brighter future than that.

Sam Hagenlocher still has Bob Essensa’s autograph.

Published in Volume 66, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 21, 2012)

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