How it feels to be stuck in a Winnipeg Whiteout

Here is the history of the origins of the whiteout in Winnipeg, its effect on the team and fans, and how the city has hung onto the tradition decades later.

WINNIPEG – When I ran into Canada’s Minster of International Trade in the elevator of an old Winnipeg hotel — y’know, as one does — the Honourable Francois-Philippe Champagne said he was concerned all day Wednesday.

He’d been informed a Whiteout was invading the Prairie city at the same time as his business trip. The politician’s safety worries were relieved when the details of this particular brand of Whiteout were explained to him. Once he saw what all of Canada witnessed Wednesday night, he bought in to the fervour.

Champagne may not be a hockey fanatic, but the power of happy people flooding the street and filling the arena with a shared hope, a loud voice and silly costumes, well, it’s contagious. Enough that he wanted to chat with a stranger in an elevator about the wonderful spectacle he’d witnessed.

Head-to-toe white jumpsuits, ZZ Top–style beards, chalky wigs, 15,321 whipping towels stamped with the claim “We Are Winnipeg,” road-white replica jerseys galore, makeshift fighter jet pilot helmets, white Christmas lights worn as body necklaces, more expended tubes of clown-white face paint than a mime convention … Jets fans don’t just show their pride, they dunk themselves in it and then mosh in your face and make merry.

“I was trying to find a word for it. Electrifying? I dunno,” said Jets defenceman Joe Morrow, who only scored the first playoff game-winner in franchise history.

“People filled both bowls for the warmup of a game. You never see that. Every chance you get, they’re cheering as loud as they can, pouring their hearts and souls into the ice. All that funnels down to us and that really does make a huge difference. My first Whiteout experience will be one I’ll never forget.”

Winnipeg’s Whiteout harkens back to 1987, when supporters of the original Jets were encouraged to wear white to home playoff games to build an intimidating backdrop for the visiting Flames — a colourless response to Calgary’s C of Red. The Jets won that series in six, and a tradition was born.

When the franchise relocated to Glendale, Ariz., the Whiteout migrated west. Former Jets AHL affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps, brought it east. Current farm team, the Manitoba Moose, have dabbled with it too. And when Canada faced off for gold against Russia at the 1999 world juniors, host Winnipeg turned out looking whiter than Jerry Seinfeld’s sneakers.

The success of the Whiteout, however, is debatable. The former Jets franchise never won anything more prestigious than an Avco Cup. This edition got swept by the Ducks in its first trip to the dance, back in 2015. And red machine Russia won that ’99 gold medal.

Now that the NHL has done away with home whites and the Jets actually wear blue at MTS Place — petition pending — the Whiteout doesn’t quite sync up aesthetically the way it did in Dave Ellett’s glory days.

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Seeing this crowd’s effects on a team that’s Cup-contender good, however, may turn you into a believer. The Jets came into the post-season with the best home record in hockey (32-7-2), they start better than any other team (30-2 when leading after one period), and they feed off their seventh man — who just won’t shut up.

Goalie Connor Hellebuyck says just thinking about the crowd gives him butterflies. Jacob Trouba says he has to try hard to not get caught up and keep his focus on the play. Blake Wheeler says he loves feeding off their energy.

On Wednesday, close icings in the first period were booed with lust; officials were reminded how much they suck at not-so-subtle volume; each key save or crushing Byfuglien body check was celebrated to touchdown-esque levels; and goals for the good guys were punctuated by plumes of dry ice puking from underneath the Jumbotron and culminated in unadulterated frenzy. The Wave happened, sans irony.

Walls can’t contain all that joy, so it spills outside — where it’s cheaper. The open, free-of-charge party on Donald Street is costing True North Sports & Entertainment an estimated $20,000 each evening to produce, but the costs are figured to be recouped in merchandise, food and beverage sales and corporate activations.

Spreading further, elementary schools have held their own mini Whiteouts.

“This is a special place,” Jets coach Paul Maurice says. “We’ve got a camera, and when the doors opened at clearly at 5 o’clock [for a 6 p.m. puck drop], they got the memo wrong. Thought the game was starting. That’s the best warmup crowd we’ve ever had, and they were wired from the start.”

Later, when Patrik Laine wristed a rocket over Devan Dubnyk’s glove for the first playoff goal of his NHL career, tying Game 1 and cueing the comeback, the decibel level inside the barn exceeded 108, which is akin to putting your head beside a riveting machine. The average human pain threshold is 110.

From the nosebleeders, it became impossible to hear yourself think, unless your thought was, Boy, sure is loud, eh?</em >

“The atmosphere was just like the place exploded,” Laine says. “I was saving my goals and celebrations for the playoffs. Now you can celly a little harder.”

Despite Winnipeg’s proximity to Minnesota, only one Wild fan could be spotted, like a green Waldo, in Wednesday’s sea of white. A repugnant sliver of spinach stuck in a Colgate smile, the in-arena camera operator focused on the fan in green and plastered a virtual white shirt on him. At first he tried to squirm but eventually relented.

“We know the crowd. That’s one advantage that I’ve been able to tell the players, playing against them three years ago [with Anaheim], with the crowd and what the expectations are going to be like when you get to the arena,” says Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. This is his first playoff series as the underdog, and he sarcastically played that card.

“We’re glad we’re invited to play, so we’ll give it our best shot.”

As for Maurice, whose knack for dry humour matches Boudreau’s, he was asked post-game what he thought of the opening night crowd.

Maurice paused before coming up with the perfect answer.

“We should invite them all back.”

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