You have to be careful about trusting hockey fans. We’re generally an honest and principled bunch — call it the Canadian influence — but we’ve been conditioned to lie pathologically about certain subjects. My favorite player never dives. (Yes he does, all the time.) Our gimmicky anthem singer is endearing. (No, he’s really not.) Montreal Canadiens ceremonies are always the best. (Only most of them.)
And there’s no bigger hockey lie at this time of year than this one: “the loudest building in the NHL.” That’s because, come playoff time, virtually every building in the league gets that designation from someone, somewhere. It’s become an annual tradition around the hockey world, this daily anointing of some random town as the loudest building in the league, simply because the fans finally bothered to show up and make some noise for a change. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a press box watching tweets scroll by about how noisy it is while thinking, Wait, did I show up at the wrong building? Because it’s not that loud in here.
And so I went into last night’s heavily anticipated Ducks-Jets game in Winnipeg, the first NHL playoff game played in the city in 19 years, fully prepared for noise. I was expecting noise, even hoping for it. But I also came in carrying along a good dose of prove-it-to-me cynicism. And I held on to that cynicism right up until the moment it melted out of my ears and trickled down onto my shoulders, along with what used to be my eustachian tubes and an undetermined number of brain cells. That moment came midway through pregame warm-ups.
Good lord, Jets fans. Maybe ease it up just a bit. Some of us might want to go home and hear our children’s laughter again someday.
This was the sound of one town unleashing almost two decades of pent-up … I’m not even sure what the right word would be. What’s it called when relief and happiness and civic pride become indistinguishable from primal rage? Whatever it is, it was that. A whole lot of that.
And with the noise came the return of one of hockey’s greatest sights: the whiteout. The real one, not the Phoenix version or one of the various other rip-offs out there. We can argue over whether the Jets invented it,1 but there’s no doubt they’ve perfected it. In the years since the last playoff game in Winnipeg, the concept has been borrowed and repackaged by dozens of teams in various sports, almost always supplemented by free T-shirts left on seats by corporate sponsors, all the better to awkwardly pull over a suit jacket. Not in Winnipeg. They don’t do freebies here. They bring their own white shirts. And pants. And hats, and shoes, and wigs, and face paint, and you name it. I’m pretty sure I saw one guy in a hazmat suit. Leading up to the game, Jets fans’ biggest concern was about whether the team’s white jerseys were white enough.2
And so, 19 years after the original Jets fled to Phoenix, four years after the lowly Atlanta Thrashers moved north to be reborn as Jets 2.0, and two games after the Jets and Ducks kicked off their first-round series, the playoffs had come back to Winnipeg.
Oh, right, the Anaheim Ducks. That’s where this whole feel-good story is going to get a little rough around the edges. The Ducks finished the season with the West’s best record for the second consecutive year.3 With a surprisingly weak Pacific Division fading below them, they feel very much like a Cup-or-bust team, certainly not the kind that would accept losing to a mere wild-card crossover like the Jets.
And through the first two games, the Ducks looked the part. Both times, the Jets held a lead in the third period. Both times, the Ducks roared back to win in regulation. Anaheim came into Monday without having even played its best game but was still just a win away from all but ending the series. It was also the West’s best road team, so if anyone could come into Winnipeg and steal one, it should be the Ducks.
But still, that crowd. Players and coaches had talked about its impact earlier in the day. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau predicted the fans would be “rabid,” adding, “we hope it’s not too intimidating.” He seemed to be only half-joking. Jets coach Paul Maurice talked about Winnipeg fans coming up to him in the streets to say thank you, and how he felt like a teacher who’d finally helped struggling kids turn their grades around. Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd said everyone would be excited to see the crowd’s reaction — “It’s going to give us some energy,” he said, before adding, “we’ll see if we use it the right way.”
In the first, there was plenty of energy available to be used. The crowd cheered icings and offsides like most crowds cheer big hits. They cheered big hits like most crowds cheer goals. And they cheered goals, well, they cheered goals like Jets fans cheer goals. Sorry, that’s where the comparison breaks down.