An Oiler diehard living in Vancouver writing about the Jets. It’s a confusing time for one man’s fandom. “You can’t have split loyalties,” cries out the true fan. “That’s not how it works!” Yet it does and I do and it keeps me sliding up and down a continuum of fanaticism that colours me bluer than an Albert King song or brighter yellow than August sunshine, all depending on the time and place. I’m old enough to remember the glories of Gretz, I lived in Winnipeg while the Jets were howling mournfully in the desert and I narrowly avoided a riot in Vancouver. If our fandom is an extension of our true selves then hand me a sonic screwdriver and fire up the TARDIS because I keep regenerating: the same but different and a little wearier every time. Even St. Christopher would tell me to give it up already because there are no more Cups in sight, not by a long shot.
There was a heartfelt rallying cry from Wayne on Oilersnation recently, after the sound thrashing by the Red Wings that most us felt was the final elbow to the head for the Oilers’ season this year. Suddenly “rebuild” was the sound you make while dry-heaving your championship fantasies into the toilet. It was impressive to see how Wayne took fair stock of the situation but still called on a community to rise above and find purpose in our shared passion beyond any measuring stick of success, simply in participating. That, my friends, is some wisdom that even Buddha would butter his muffin with – well done. And yet, just like seeing a picture of your Ex in Cancun with some guy made entirely of abs, your sense of composure and rationale is tested nightly.
In the 1980’s, I was a boy in northern Alberta who could barely skate and had no context for the constant parade of blue and orange that filled the streets. These were mythological creatures, these Gretzkys and Kurris and Coffees and Fuhrs, serving up euphoric joy to all the downtrodden plebes of roughneck country. A city on the cusp of maturation but isolated and with an inevitable inferiority complex was now suddenly and repeatedly an Ice Titan. Bow, all ye Bossys and Smiths, before the might of your new overlords! It was pretty rad, is what I’m saying. In a place like Edmonton, the key to happiness is making your own because you’re too far from any major centre to make envy worthwhile. In the 80’s, boy did they make it. Petrol money and Stanley Cups made Edmonton enviable for a change but, just like an oil boom, it couldn’t last.
The 90’s were ushered in inauspiciously with Zeus being traded like cattle to graze amongst the bacchanalian hordes in sweaty Los Angeles. Secretly, aside from the hurt, I think we all were a little jealous that he was going to a place where the only kind of block heater they would ever know was 30 degree temperatures cooking the sidewalks of Sunset Boulevard. Then came that remarkable championship via Moose and Billy Ranford. Glorious! “Smooth sailing ahead!” we laughed, only to paddle our skiff into the dark heart of a maelstrom of crushing “Almost”, swirling there, never sinking, dizzy and nauseous for decades to come.
When I moved to Vancouver in 2000, the Canucks were never going to capture my heart. My steadfast Oilers fandom was unquestionable, never mind your Naslunds or your Sedins. Eventually, despite the Bertuzzi gruesomeness and Naslund’s growing indifference, I could not remain immune to the sheer beauty of the Sedins’ play as they grew into themselves. It’s like watching the northern lights or a magic act that only the curmudgeonliest of curmudgeons would try to dismiss. They’re awesome. Anytime I hear some local idiot break out the expression “Sedin Sisters”, I can only shake my head. Listen: One day, after they’ve retired, you’re going to realize how unique and gifted they were and how they carried your entire team for years, right to the steps of a Stanley Cup more than once – that’s how “soft” they were, you dummies.
While the Canucks were simmering, an unlikely story unfolded: the Oilers’ fabled 2006 Cup run. Living in Vancouver, I felt like a lottery winner with no one to celebrate with. Most nights, encouragingly, there was the (misplaced?) loyalty of Canadian hockey fans, cheering for any of the Canadian market teams that make it to the finals, which would prompt salutes and random cheers from strangers in the street who saw me in my cap or jersey. Everyone loves an underdog story and the 8th seed Oilers coming within one game of a Cup was just shy of a classic. They were genuinely happy for me/us but I could tell it was always tempered with disappointment in their own team’s teasing playoff appearances. That disappointment ended briefly then literally burst into flames in 2011.
The Canucks Cup run was intoxicating. I had forgotten what it does to a city. The cynics call it mass hysteria but the genuine enthusiasm and optimism that surged into the streets every night was electric. The end was frustrating, of course. The Bruins not only punished an already beat-up team but the instant rivalry was like a Biggee/Tupac beef. “East Coast is rough and tough and won’t put up with any slip & dangle from those fey Swedes, no sir!” It also showed the ugly side of the coin that Vancouverites were using as currency during those weeks. The same team that was the emblem for pride and hope and joy was now the cipher for chaos and futility. You could feel the combustibility of the day hours ahead of the events that night. Win or lose, some shit was gonna get smashed. I left downtown by the end of the first period. Pessimistic, perhaps, (would I have given up if it was an Oilers game?) but the writing seemed to be on the wall and I wanted to be home alone to nurse the defeat with a rum & coke rather than watch a sea of people despair and destroy. The riot shook me. The aftermath of community spirit and accountability impressed me. No matter your own feelings about the people and the city or your political interpretation of the violence, a silly hockey game took on a lot of significance that day. For better or for worse, it is unforgettable.
Those scrappy Oilers were never far from my thoughts. Should I have felt like a cheating spouse? I didn’t and I don’t. “Free love, man, free love.” (Ugh, I can smell patchouli just from writing that, sorry everyone.) While the Canucks seemed poised for their moment in the sun, the Oilers, for the last several years, seem poised to be poised for their moment near to the sun or some approximation of the sun, perhaps a heat lamp or a bottle of Vitamin D. And I’m the sucker that is stocking up on that Vitamin D! It’s reached an abysmal low this year because hopefulness, it turns out, is not as renewable a resource as we once thought. Such talent to harness, such goodwill from the fans, such unlikely injury misfortune and puzzling incompetence from the players and such epic mismanagement from the organization – we are drained. Mercy. Enough. We tap. When we ask what’s wrong, it’s like a child asking a parent why the sky is blue. They just do not know or if they even have a notion of why, it’s too complicated and just be quiet, there’s ice cream when we get home. Rocky Road. It’s all the Oilnation has had to eat for over 20 years.
Now, where do the Jets figure in? Almost by accident, actually. I was asked to write about them, I accepted and I dove in. Can you become a fan just by willing yourself? I assumed there must be some rule of heredity or geography that oversaw your reflex to jump up and cheer a team’s goals or curse their mistakes but, apparently, there is some degree of free will involved after all. Happy day!
I remember when Winnipeg got by with the Manitoba Moose and a knotty lump of pride to swallow. I, like many Canadians, was delighted to see their return; knowing some of the talent that buoyed the Thrashers, I was excited for them to play in a town that would embrace them. The core of the team, when focused and engaged like we’ve seen intermittently this year, is a marvel of power and skill. Ladd, Wheeler, Little and Kane can make other teams look like the Washington Generals on skates. Byfuglien, at his best, is Fred Flintstone playing football, just straight-arming chumps with comedic ease and then shooting the puck through the goalie with the force of a trebuchet. He’s impressed me since the year he was a key to the dismantling of the Canucks en route to the Blackhawks’ first Cup win. These Jets can play and if or when the pieces around them are filled in properly they’re going to be lights out.
Being a Jets fan is a very familiar feeling, putting me in the time machine, going only a few years back in my Oiler life. Expectation, eagerness, chomping at the bit for an 8th seed: it’s all a hot cup of muddy coffee on a 30 below day that’s howling challenge at you in the wind chill. It’s strangely more compelling than cheering for a dominant team. The struggles take on deeper meaning and the victories are savoured more fully. You can see what they need to improve and you pray that management sees it too and so, naturally, it must only be a matter of time until the narrative in your mind meets the one on the ice. You overcome the odds… together? That’s the essence of fandom – we just want to be part of a good story.
My story is Goldilocks. I’ve had the unique opportunity to be amongst the too cold, the too hot and the just right. What never changes is the engagement I’ve found in the game and in the community of fans that connects me to a complex and ever-changing narrative. Good or bad, it’s never been boring. This season, I’m hopeful for the Jets, surprised by the Canucks and heartbroken by the Oilers. Yes, I keep watching them but it’s just trolling the Ex on Facebook. (What’s so great about Cancun anyway? We haven’t broken up; we’re just on a break.) I’m delighted at the opportunity I’ve been given to write and assess and learn and deepen my appreciation for the game and its fans all across the Blogoshere. This is the internet at its best, is it not? To be able to commune across geographical boundaries; to claim fraternity regardless of class or race or sex; to make off-colour jokes on Twitter: Are these not our higher broadband callings? I enjoy my Schizofania. I just wish I could get in my TARDIS to go back and tweak a couple of events… just a couple.