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By now, in the city’s third journey into the NHL playoffs with these reborn Winnipeg Jets, a multitude of frothy post-season rituals is beginning to congeal into traditions. There are the street parties, and the banners in the skywalk windows, and the grown men in white tutus, or white coveralls, or white fun-fur wigs.
Then there were the politicians lined up on the legislature stairs, jerseys slipped over white-collared shirts, the premier at the head of the pack, leading the chant of “go Jets go.”
On social media, fans and businesses posted photos of Jets logos emblazoned on everything from fingernails to cookies and toast.
Or, there was the Winnipeg sign at The Forks, which, Mayor Brian Bowman explained on Twitter, would glow bright red each time the home team scored. On Wednesday night, that first happened at 7:35 p.m., when Jets forward Patrik Laine fired a shot that beat St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, and the city blew up.
In that moment we were there, in the heart of it all, ears filled with the noise that surged up from the ice.
We were there, even if we didn’t have a ticket. Even if we just watched at home on the couch. That’s what happens with phenomena that are born of collective will: no matter where we are, we live them together.
And so it was outside Bell MTS Place, where the streets roiled with the buzz of 8,500 people, the official street party no worse for the $5 admission fee introduced this year, which raised more than $47,000 for the United Way.
It started slowly, but by 6:30 it was jumping, a great multitude converging on narrow streets to soak in the thrill.
The scenes there were rowdy, and fun. Fans decked out in jerseys, or in whatever whimsically white thing they could find.
Young men who hollered and shook triumphant index fingers for the benefit of delighted television cameras, and it’s remarkable how quickly that scene has become the familiar harbinger of a Winnipeg spring.
Pause here for a moment. Gaze upon the signs at the street party, the face paint, all the gaudy and glittering things. Marvel at how freewheeling and creative Winnipeggers can be, when given space and excuse to create our own adventure. Behold the energy we have let build up, over the course of a long winter.
It’s the same as it was last year, or is it? On Wednesday afternoon, seven hours before the puck dropped, seats for the game — good ones, even — were still available on Ticketmaster. So were tickets for the outdoor street party. The first year the Jets 2.0 made playoffs, by the skin of their teeth, the barn sold out in under five minutes.
Maybe people are holding back now, betting they’ll need to crack open their wallets later in the playoff run. Maybe people are holding back now so as not to get their hopes up, after the way the team sputtered to the finish line this season. Maybe that new-playoff smell has just worn off a bit, after last year’s deep push.
Yet one thing is true about Winnipeggers and the Jets, which is that we never give up. Not during those lean years they were absent, when it seemed the city might never compete with the NHL markets of the south. Not during the first years of their return, when the team had more character than talent. Not now, when they need us.
Or rather, not now when we need them. Because that’s the direction this love affair really goes: True North may own the Jets, but it’s Winnipeg that creates what they mean. We build that legacy a little bigger with every party, every goal, and every video of Jets fans from all over the world sharing a rallying cry of “go Jets go.”
They have only ever been what Winnipeg projected on them. That’s all they will ever be. After all this time and all this money, all these hours of hand-wringing analysis, they are just a bunch of men knocking a rubber puck around a rink. It is fans who, with the act of laying our hopes on the team’s shoulders, decides what that really means.
And what it means is this: my God, you know, it’s great to feel something, when everyone around you is feeling the same thing. When Laine scored that goal, the city seemed to shiver, from the heart of downtown to the banks of the rivers, as the vibrations from hundreds of thousands of voices convened to sing their euphoria.
Too bad it didn’t end that way. But there is still Friday night, and a chance to do it all over again. Hoping, until there is no more hope left; cheering, until there’s nothing left to cheer; filling the streets to at least make the hockey-watching world know that we will always be Jets fans here.
And in the end, this is all that matters: on Wednesday, Winnipeg came alive again. The festivities are a little more trepidatious than last year, a lot less convinced that this team is destined to win. But that’s no matter: this is a city that promised itself once, a long time ago and yet so well remembered, that our Jets would fly forever.
So what else do you do? Turn to the sky, spread your wings to the sides, and hope for the wind to lift them.