Autumn Promises


Last week at work I found an old paperback discarded in the break-room. It was the Signet 1995-96 Hockey Almanac. Suddenly I was opening up a time capsule.

Autumn, 1995. We were grinding hard in the back of her lemon-yellow Chevy Nova. It was freezing but feverish, windows frosting over and shirts peeling off gracelessly in a tangle of elbows and glasses. This was the debut of my first serious relationship. It would last just under three years and end in a protracted yearlong break-up after I went to “find myself” by travelling across Canada and she stayed behind to be courted by some loutish Irish twat. Despite many awkward attempts, I never wooed her back. I’m sure I made myself believe I could do better. I still wonder if I ever did.

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My first band had released its debut CD. We thought the world was waiting for us. You can’t even find us in a Google search now. The guitar player has three kids and works as an electrician. I thought we were Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, turns out we were just Ross and Matt.

Dial-up Internet. Waiting so-o-o long for one topless picture of Elle Macpherson. Not even dreaming of iPads – that was Star Trek, friends, science fiction! We did our fantasy drafts with paper and pencil, with rankings supplied by the newspaper or, for the hardcore it seems, an annual paperback. I had no clue such an item existed before this week.

Winnipeg, did you know what fate held in store for you that season? Surely the talk of the team actually leaving was incredulous. What, with the grass-roots campaigns, the government intervention… it may have been a rocky relationship but it would endure, wouldn’t it? What better line in hockey existed than Tkachuk-Selanne–Zhamnov? It was speed and skill and grit and with those boys leading a healthy roster the Jets would be play-off bound. Wouldn’t that kind of success seal the deal to keep the team in town?

By February 1996, Selanne was incomprehensibly traded to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for Chad Kilger and Oleg Tverdovsky. By April, Norm MacIver scored the last Jets goal in a 4-1 playoff loss and first-round exit to the Detroit Red Wings. It was the last period in an ellipsis that hung the city in limbo for 15 years. Years when Jets fans simmered and scoffed while expansion franchises floundered in the Southern United States. They were resigned to this fate, to this “big league also-ran” status that made them strange bedfellows with Quebec City and Hartford, Connecticut. Who could have predicted the twists and turns of the NHL that would lead the Jets back to the Red River? Who would have bet on a miraculous 17-minute season ticket sellout? No fortuneteller or market analyst would have brought you from there to here in such unlikely and unwieldy fashion.

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Now the shine has worn off a bit, the planets and divisions will be more properly aligned and we can make bold predictions for the 2013-14 season. Ironically, they’re not so different from what the publishers of the 1995-96 Hockey Almanac anticipated then. They saw the success of that year’s team depending largely on the output of the first offensive line and the potential of a young Eastern European goaltender. They predicted a 5th place finish in the division. The boys at Signet must have had themselves a divining rod with a wicked curve on it; they wristed that prediction just over the Bulin wall. See any resemblance? The top D then were bruising Dave Manson and the savvy Teppo Numminen. Sound like any current pairings we know? As for their record, would anyone place this year’s Jets higher than 5th in the division and expect better than a first round exit in the playoffs if they managed to squeak in? Still, we remain hopeful.

There’s no scientific merit to any of my conjecture and the differences in the teams are just as prevalent as the similarities: There’s no threat of relocation looming over this bunch and management is not likely to trade a franchise player with the turning of the calendar – though let’s not put it outside the realm of ludicrous possibility. What remains is the wonderfully unscientific search for purpose and order in the pages of a musty old almanac in 1995 or the bookmarked tabs of hockey websites on a laptop today.

We give ourselves over to statistics in hopes that they will lead us through new uncertainties. Every year we reset the clocks and check the latest rankings and wear our expectations proudly like back-to-school jeans. Memories and predictions are cousins once removed: years apart but nodding hello at the start of each new season as if at an awkward family dinner. They are reunited here every fall, sometimes by eagerness, sometimes by obligation, bundles of anticipation spiked with a little dread.

They’re expressions of longing. A tear shed for a regret and a New Year’s resolution are both drawn from the same existential well. Dustin Byfuglien came to camp in better shape, thinking about missed opportunities last season. Cheveldayoff opened up the checkbook to secure his stars in hopes that they shine bright enough to earn the designation. We fill a blog with mathematical evidence of a player’s validity, hoping they prove us right, or in the case of a sentimental favourite maybe past his prime or in over his head, wrong. Come on Pavelec, you can do it, buddy! Do it for Froli!

Ah, the girl with the Nova… she’s my Selanne for sure. I let her go for nothing and she looks as good if not better now than when I knew her. What would have I pictured for us in 1995? I have to look forward now. I date and I remain unjustifiably optimistic considering my age, my bank account and my self-deprecation. I have Big Buf in my pool. I hope he’s Norris-bound this year. Why would I hope anything less? I thumb through names in this dog-eared almanac that conjure only the fuzziest of recollections: Andrew Cassels, Pat Falloon, Dmitri Kristich.

Somebody somewhere is reading those names now and is swept through a vortex back to an old flame, to a great night in a beat-up car, to a cool band they saw in an empty campus bar with 12 other lucky people. They’re thinking about the year they drafted a few wildcards onto their fantasy team and got rewarded with a Steve Mason instead of, say, a Steve Mason. They might imagine different outcomes. (Stop living in the past.) They might not drop Eric Karlsson from their keeper team in anticipation of the “Sophomore Slump”. (Have patience with Dougie Hamilton.) They might tell off that terrible boss. (Leave it alone. Think about your future.) They might take a few more chances. (Well, do that this year!) They might make good on a few promises. (Write them down, cross them off.) They might work off that squish. (You’ve eaten enough McDonald’s for two lifetimes, Flabbo!) They might… 

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