By Ryan Goodale
Five Thousand, Six Hundred, and Twenty Three.
A number that can be justified in one's mind when standing in line to pay property taxes - or perhaps installing some new windows in a house. It's a long, cold winter in Winnipeg and those new windows would certainly help cut down on the heating bills for a few months.
5,623 has a completely different meaning to me, though. It's the precise number of days I endured - yes, endured - between watching a live NHL game. The last game I ever attended was on April 28, 1996, a playoff loss to the Detroit Red Wings. My story is no different than that of thousands of Manitobans - I watched as our team was ripped away from us - a victim of escalating salaries, an untenable building lease, and a grand plan of growing the game in the United States.
I told myself that I would always cheer for my Jets, now to be known as the Coyotes. I didn't. Wouldn't. Couldn't. Watching that team invoked too emotional a response. Not tears, but anger. Why US? Why Winnipeg? I was a 22 year old man (although some of my exploits would make it hard to seem so), and I felt like a huge part of my being was gone in an instant. I didn't want to stop being a Jets fan, but I had no say in the matter.
Then an odd thing happened. Over a period of perhaps 5 years, I started ignoring the NHL. I would sit down to watch Hockey Night In Canada and only make it through two periods. I stopped participating in fantasy drafts. And I didn't care. I would certainly watch the playoffs every year, and of course the World Juniors and Olympics, but NHL hockey just didn't seem to matter to me anymore. That's not to say, however, that I had given up on hockey altogether.
On October 11, 1996, I went to my first (the first ever, in fact) Manitoba Moose game. I hated it. I declared I would never go back. This was bush league hockey and Winnipeg was certainly not a bush league hockey town. We were an NHL town. I didn't go back until 1998. Free tickets, in the lounge section. We got drunk, and left after the second period. I didn't return until 2000. Free tickets again. We got drunk, but stayed for the whole game. The next week I bought tickets, sat in the stands for the whole game and actually enjoyed myself.
In 2004, with the opening of the MTS Centre, I became a Moose ticket package subscriber and remained so for the rest of their history (save for 2007 when we took a year off due to the birth of my son) Despite what the Winnipeg hockey elitests said under their breath about the AHL brand of hockey, I was fully entrenched as a Moose fan and took great joy in watching the Canucks prospects move through the system and work their way up to the NHL. Over the years I had the pleasure of watching such names as Kesler, Bieksa, Schneider, Rypien (R.I.P.), Hansen, and Burrows get promoted to the big club (never mind people like Baumgartner, Goren, Roy, and Keane, who were loved by the Moose faithful).
Something else happened when the Moose became affiliated with the Canucks. Slowy, but surely, I started to become interested in the NHL again. On top of that, I had a team to cheer for. I was a Canucks fan. How could that be? A jets fan turned Canucks fan?? This is certainly something I had to keep quiet. I found myself watching Hockey Night in Canada and pretty much any hockey I could get my eyes on. I was back. And it was all because of the Moose. Never mind that Marc Chipman saved hockey in Winnipeg, he, in a sense, saved ME.
Back to 5,623. I think it may have been fate that I went all those years without seeing a game. I looked back at some old business calendars and came up with the following. Over the last 10 years I have taken 12 business trips during hockey season to markets with NHL franchises. 12 perfect opportunities to see a game. Not once - ever - was the home team in town when I was in those markets. How could that possibly be? Clearly I was being scolded for turning my back on the NHL when the Jets left. Then came the icing on the cake. October, 2010. The annual boys road trip to Minneapolis to see the Vikings play - and the Wild had a home game the night before. After 14 years, I was finally going to see an NHL game. Not so, said the hockey gods. Around 4 hours into the trip, it was discovered by someone who shall remain nameless that the football tickets had been left in Winnipeg. The first car of four continued on to Minneapolis and cuaght the hockey game, and I sat in a bar in Fargo while he shall who remain nameless drove back to the U.S. border to meet a courier and retrieve the tickets. If that's not the hockey gods preparing me for something bigger, I don't know what is.
Something bigger came last night. At 6 PM sharp, I entered the MTS Centre as a Winnipeg Jets season ticket holder. I made my way to my seat and did not leave - not once, no beer, food or washroom breaks - until the players gathered at center ice to salute the fans and Mark Scheifele skated out as the first star while the crowd chanted his name. It was, in summary, perfection.
I'm still bitter that hockey was ripped from me for 15 years - it seems odd now for a 37 year old to look at people in their early 20's as idols. I couldn't be happier, however, that my son has a team full of players (and I know that True North will ensure this) that he can look up to. I will say this though - even though it may be odd for someone my age to wear the name and number of a twenty-something on their back, that Byfuglien is seriously fucking cool.