On April 4, I attended my first Jets home game since their return. I almost didn’t survive.
It had been 19 years since I’d last stepped into a Winnipeg arena to watch the team make a push for the playoffs. I was in high school then, and dutifully wore my oversized Alexei Zhamnov sweater every game day. The team was just barely hanging on to the last spot and the mood was tense, but not because of the playoffs—on July 1, 1996, the Jets would move to Phoenix and NHL hockey in the ’Peg would be no more.
The atmosphere in the MTS Centre was nothing like it was in the Winnipeg Arena all those years ago. Without the spectre of a move to Arizona hanging over the team, people could actually embrace this run to the playoffs. Over the past couple of months, I’d been watching the Jets play from the edge of my bed, fists clenched, blood pressure rising. On this day, I assumed the position, but with a big difference: I was with 15,000 other fans who shared that same I’m-about-to-throw-up look.
When the Jets left town in 1996, I quit watching hockey. I also grew up. Now I’m 35 and living in Toronto with a wife, two kids, a job and a mortgage. When the team returned four years ago, those 16-year-old hockey fanatic feelings resurfaced immediately. Suddenly, drinking beer and watching a game on a Wednesday night made perfect sense. Staying at home on Saturday to catch Hockey Night in Canada sounded better than going out.
My obsession with the sport has grown steadily since the Jets returned, but the past few weeks have been the most intense. I’ve surprised myself at the lengths I’ll go to to catch these all-important games. When I put my kids to bed, I lie next to them in just the right way so I can watch the game on my iPhone without them noticing. I’ve also disappeared from meetings and social events to catch the last few minutes of a game. In late March, I sneakily asked a bartender in New York to turn on the Rangers game, only to cheer for the Jets, who were playing the Blueshirts that night. She wasn’t pleased.
There was no sneaking around on this day, though. Sitting with so many Jets fans was thrilling. Jim Slater and Michael Frolik scored within 50 seconds of each other in the first period, to make the game 2–0. Usually when the Jets score I let out a yelp that scares my kids. This time, I jumped and screamed in unison with thousands of other fans.
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To say this was intense is an understatement. The Jets, as they’re wont to do, almost blew the game in the last two minutes. When the Canucks hit the post with about 90 seconds left on the clock to nearly tie it up, I looked around to see if there were defibrillators in the aisles. At several points I wondered why a grown man would become so invested in a team that he feels sick every time the opposition has the puck.
But then the Jets won, 5–4, and I high-fived the stranger in the seat next to me. I was thankful Winnipeg was one step closer to ending its near two-decade playoff drought. I’m worried, though, about what comes next. The final game against Calgary, the possible playoff run. I hope my heart can take it.