Thirteen Years After Jets’ Demise, White Out Lives On
Fifteen-thousand people, all clad in white. Grandmothers furiously shaking white pompoms. Babies dressed in white Onesies. College students wearing ashen facepaint and sporting powdered wigs. All screaming at the top of their lungs, petitioning the referee to just drop the puck already!
Think you’re on the corner of Center Avenue and Mario Lemieux Place in Pittsburgh? Think again.
Pens fans, meet your forefathers – the Winnipeg Jets’ faithful
The white out tradition actually started in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Our story begins in 1987 at the sparsely named Winnipeg Arena – back in those wild, draconian days when financial institutions and start-up dot-coms didn’t pay millions to stamp their logos on the toilet paper in every hockey arena bathroom.
We were more than a decade away from iPhone applications that let fans watch television replays while they’re at the game, and even The Simpsons were two years prenatal. We’re talking about the landline days of The Joshua Tree and “tear down that wall.”
With nothing enjoyable yet invented – aside from Molson beer and the game of hockey, or as Canadians call it, shinney – Winnipeggers spent much of their free time thinking of ways to combine the two in creative ways. Skinny shinney, a Manitobian take on skinny dipping, didn’t quite work out.
Then one day, some bright, young Jets fan had an innovative idea –
“Hey lads, you know how those hosers from Calgary are always wearing their red jerseys to the Flames games, calling it the C of Red and all that? Well, follow me here – let’s all get hosed and wear white to the Jets game tonight, eh?”
Yikes. You usually have to pass out with your shoes on at a frat party to get that kind of artwork on your face.
And thus, a tradition was born that has since been adopted by Penn State University, the Miami Heat of the NBA, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, and your Pittsburgh Penguins.
Actually, Jets fans had a lot in common with Penguins fans. Winnipeg is a city with working class roots that has undergone a bit of a transformation since the 1980s, and now features an eclectic mix of college students, independent film makers, card dealers from the nearby casinos, and financiers, as well as retired workers from the rail yards and meat packing plants.
During the grey, bleak months of March, when the piercing wind blew in from The Forks – the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, Winnipeg’s version of The Point – Jets fans took solace in the fact that three or four nights a week, it would be a hockey night in Winnipeg.
No matter how high the snow piled up in their driveways, no matter how backbreaking or mindnumbing their jobs were, Winnipegers could look forward to nights of glove-dropping, facewashing and bench clearing brawls (click to watch – even the coaches get involved).
Then, in 1996, after 24 years of tradition, the Jets were taken away. They were packed up, repackaged in new colors and moved to Phoenix. Because of the weak Canadian dollar and rising player salaries, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman saw a speculative economic oppontunity of the Lehman Brothers variety – and approved the team’s relocation to Phoenix, Arizona.
“Yes,” Commissioner Bettman thought, “This will work out splendidly.”
I hate to spoil the ending for you, but Mr. Bettman’s Frankensteinian hockey experiment in the southwest did not turn out as he expected. The Phoenix Coyotes filed for bankrupcy on May 5.
Coyotes re-branding meeting, June 1996: “Okay, Marty, I love the logo – but can we add…oh I don’t know, every color of the rainbow? Nothing says “hockey” like kachina art, moons, and the color purple. Hey, can you give the coyote a cantine pouch? Actually, let’s go crazy – give him spikey hair and beddazle his stick with some sort of weird ornament. Perfecto.”
Nothing better symbolizes the 1990s – the decade of “let’s take something stable and good and supersize it to try to make more money” – than the demise of the Winnipeg Jets. Because of a downswing in the value of the Canadian dollar that has since righted itself, the NHL saw on opportunity to expand into an exploding U.S. market of latte sipping Audi drivers in square-framed glasses.
They ditched the meat packers and Molson drinkers of Manitoba so they could cram luxury boxes into a state-of-the-art arena and sell $9 mojitos. In a business class, this plan might fly.
One problem: hockey isn’t, and will never be, a mainstream sport like the NBA or NFL. As Penguins fans know, it’s a sport best experienced elbow-to-elbow with the stranger beside you, with their rally towel slapping you in the face from time to time. It’s fun to be in the trenches of the stands, your sneakers velcroed to the beer-encrusted floor, where you can do things like catch stray pucks and mercilessly heckle the referees.
You can’t do those things behind three inches of French-imported, soundproof, luxury plexiglass.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Bettman still says he believes the team belongs in Phoenix – where they routinely draw only 5,000-6,000 local television viewers per game (lowest in the NHL). Forever jealous of the NBA, Bettman – the champion of expansion – is hanging on to his pride with the help of some feigned compassion for the illusive “Phoenix hockey fan.”
But the tides are turning – recently, the Bettman and other NHL representatives have hinted that they are considering moving the team back to Canada, and Winnipeg has been winked at.
As a Penguins fan, this should delight you. The NHL is best when it is rife with rivalries and diehard fanbases. Bringing back the Jets would not only bring more intelligent hockey fans back into the fray, it would revitalize one of the most intense rivalries in the game – the Jets and the Edmonton Oilers.
As a hockey fan, you can’t complain about the possibility of more bench clearing brawls and goalie-on-goalie violence.
No matter the outcome of Phoenix’s finacial situation, it’s good to see that 13 years after the Jets’ untimely demise, a little piece of their spirit lives on in Pittsburgh.
You can help Winnipeg’s cause by going to www.JetsOwner.com
Sorry for the long-winded diatribe, but all the excitement of the Penguins’ repeat Stanley Cup birth brought back memories of the early 90s, when Pulling No Punches had a rat-tail in the fashion of former Penguin Robbie Brown, and we just had to take this opportunity to wax nostalgic about another fantastic hockey town.
For more Pens-Red Wings talk, look for an all new Burgh Show podcast on Monday.
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