Opinion

At the core of it, there is nothing particularly important about a group of well-paid young men chasing a vulcanized-rubber puck around a sheet of ice.

At the core of it, there is nothing particularly important about a group of well-paid young men chasing a vulcanized-rubber puck around a sheet of ice.

Hockey is a game, and we should be careful about canonizing those who are skilled enough to make a living playing it.

They are not heroes. Most will tell you they don't even want to be role models. And, for the majority, their community ties are tenuous at best, based entirely on contracts that require them to be here for the duration of the season and nothing more.

Whether or not we like it, those are the cold, hard facts. Sports is a business, and the Winnipeg Jets are but one small arm of the National Hockey League machine. If you want to really celebrate someone, I suggest you bypass an athlete and make it a doctor or a nurse, a teacher or a truck driver. Or any other front-line workers who have sacrificed so much during the global pandemic.

That said, there's no question the local shinny squad is an integral part of the collective psyche of many citizens around here.

The team is a point of pride, a common bond that can bring people together and make cherished memories that stand the test of time. That can remind us of what we love about living here. The Jets can warm hearts. And, as fans can certainly attest, break them over and over and over again.

Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky, right, and Mark Messier hold up the Stanley Cup trophy in 1988.

RUSTY KENNEDY / CP PICTURE ARCHIVE

Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky, right, and Mark Messier hold up the Stanley Cup trophy in 1988.

I suspect many of you were expecting to be let down once again when the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs began last week and the Jets had a date with an all-too-familiar foe. Kind of like encountering your childhood bully years later, it was the Edmonton Oilers standing in the way of spring success. Rather than Gretzky and Messier, now it was McDavid and Draisaitl who would deliver the painful dagger.

Couple that with the fact that, quite frankly, life isn’t exactly rainbows and unicorns around here right now, and you had all the ingredients for an already fragile community to take another hit. Our COVID-19 numbers are horrific, hospitals are beyond capacity and needing to call on outside help and ongoing public-health restrictions continue to impact our day-to-day lives in ways we never imagined more than 14 months into this nightmare.

Throw in the Oilers doling out the expected wedgies and swirlies to the Jets as they did in six previous NHL post-season meetings, and, as the old saying goes "the beatings will continue until morale improves."

But life moves fast, and sometimes it can take you in unexpected directions. In this case, a four-game sweep of an on-ice rival that, for the first time ever, has Winnipeg moving on and the Oilers at home empty-handed.

Connor Hellebuyck had a big role in the Jets success over the Oilers.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Connor Hellebuyck had a big role in the Jets success over the Oilers.

All of the games were intense, tight battles. The final three went into overtime and Monday's clincher needing not one, not two, but three incredibly exhausting extra-time sessions, finally ending just after 1 a.m. Tuesday inside an otherwise-empty Bell MTS Place that would have exploded in pure joy had fans been allowed to witness the accomplishments of Connor Hellebuyck and Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers and Paul Stastny and Mark Scheifele and all the other players who had a big role.

Still, there's no question the rather unexpected outcome is making a significant impact despite the unique circumstances.

My social media timelines, often filled with nothing but dread and anger, were a beacon of light over the long weekend, thanks largely to what was happening with the Jets. Fans sharing videos of their private family celebrations at home and connecting online with friends and strangers.

A friend of mine, a nurse run off her feet in a city hospital, said this of Sunday's epic Game 3 comeback for the ages, in which a 4-1 third-period deficit turned into a 5-4 overtime triumph: "The game was a much-needed boost for people feeling overwhelmed and negative."

I saw it again walking into the downtown barn prior to an even-bigger victory that began Monday night, as an impressively long parade of vehicles circled the streets, honking to the tune of "Go Jets Go" in unison, dozens and dozens of them, with fans waving pompoms and shouting their support.

COVID-19 means no street parties and no crowds, but fans have still found a way to show their support in a creative, "only in Winnipeg" way.

Winnipeg Jets fans drive around the arena prior to a playoff game against the Edmonton Oilers in Winnipeg.

FRED GREENSLADE / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Winnipeg Jets fans drive around the arena prior to a playoff game against the Edmonton Oilers in Winnipeg.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, the 22-year-old Jets forward acquired in the blockbuster mid-January trade that sent Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to Columbus, noted Monday how he's still yet to play a home game here in front of a crowd of any kind, but heard fan loud and clear as he left the building late Sunday and he had "goosebumps."

"This year hasn’t been easy for anybody," said Dubois. "It’s been really tough, whether it’s friends or family or just people you know, and with these playoffs, to see people excited, to see people happy even if they’re not in the stands, it means a lot."

Jets coach Paul Maurice told a funny story Monday afternoon about a family friend whose Apple watch fired off a warning that he was over-exerting himself during exercise. Except he wasn't working out. He was sitting on the couch with his wife.

"They were just watching the game. The fitness alarm went off that the heart rate was too high. So, at the very least for one person in Manitoba, we're working on their conditioning," he joked.

A disclaimer: when it came to Jets vs. Oilers, I had no rooting interest, other than wishing the games would have started earlier and ended a lot quicker so I could easily meet late-night newspaper deadlines. For the record, I picked Edmonton to win in five games, which didn't sit well with plenty of locals.

However, as a born and raised 'Pegger, I'm happy just because I know so many of you are happy.

Who knows how far this current ride will go? Winnipeg will now face either Toronto or Montreal in the second round, and that's sure to stir plenty of passion around here. Another series win would send them to the final four, just one step from the Stanley Cup final itself. Dare to dream, I suppose.

Regardless of how the coming weeks play out, it feels like our community has already scored a big victory in the form of a much-needed morale boost. At a time when seemingly everything that could go wrong has gone wrong and we wait and hope that vaccinations will get us out of this seemingly never-ending mess, the Jets have given many Manitobans a real shot in the arm.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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