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It's a great time to be a sports fan in Winnipeg





As Sundays go, this one put the "win" back in Winnipeg:

First, there was Jennifer Jones and her Winnipeg foursome in North Bay, coolly scoring a single in an extra end to defeat Sweden 7-6 in the final of the 2018 world women’s curling championship.

And then a couple hours later, it was Connor Hellebuyck coolly gloving down a Filip Forsberg wrist shot in the shootout to give the Winnipeg Jets a gritty 5-4 victory over the Nashville Predators.

The win over Nashville puts the Jets back in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2015, but it’s not just the Jets that are back in a winter that has seen Winnipeg athletes taking down national, world and Olympic titles all over the place.

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As Sundays go, this one put the "win" back in Winnipeg:

First, there was Jennifer Jones and her Winnipeg foursome in North Bay, coolly scoring a single in an extra end to defeat Sweden 7-6 in the final of the 2018 world women’s curling championship.

And then a couple hours later, it was Connor Hellebuyck coolly gloving down a Filip Forsberg wrist shot in the shootout to give the Winnipeg Jets a gritty 5-4 victory over the Nashville Predators.

The win over Nashville puts the Jets back in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2015, but it’s not just the Jets that are back in a winter that has seen Winnipeg athletes taking down national, world and Olympic titles all over the place.

The Jets' return to the playoffs comes just a week after the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team won their first ever Canadian university title and just a month after Manitoba’s Olympic contingent returned home from Pyeongchang with a treasure chest of medals in what was a historically successful 2018 Winter Games for this province’s athletes.

Put it all together and it has been a great time to be a Winnipeg sports fan, which isn’t a sentence that you’ve read in these parts in a very, very long time now.

I’d argue no fanbase anywhere has been as sadistically tortured by its local teams as fans here in Winnipeg have been. It has been the agonizing stuff of Dostoyevsky novels, told with a prairie narrator.

And it’s increasingly our own unique story. Even our similarly long-suffering American brethren in Cleveland — long considered the gold standard of tortured fan bases in the U.S. — had an NBA title to celebrate a couple years ago.

But here? We wait.

The last professional hockey championship in this city was celebrated in 1979 — an Avco Cup in the final season of the old World Hockey Association — and the two versions of the Jets franchise last won a playoff game on April 26, 1996.

As for the Bombers, it’s been 28 years since a Grey Cup has been celebrated at Portage and Main and seven years since the team won a playoff game.

To say our two most popular professional teams have been in a bit of a drought would be like describing the 1930s as a bit dusty.

Indeed, were it not for our minor-league baseball team, the Winnipeg Goldeyes, there would be an entire generation in this city that grew up never witnessing a professional team celebrate a championship.

And that’s why what’s been going on the past few weeks — and, especially, what promises to come in the weeks ahead as the focus now shifts to the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs — seems to have been greeted locally with unbridled expectations, but also a dash of trepidation.

On the one hand, expectations for the hockey team in this town have never been higher, and rightly so. The Jets have great goaltending, good special teams, a solid blue line, all kinds of scoring and a bit of an intangible quality that is starting to look a lot like destiny right now.

All of those things are exactly the kind of ingredients that go into a deep playoff run and anything short of that lofty standard this spring will be greeted as a disappointment by hockey fans who a few years ago were just happy to have the NHL back in Winnipeg.

But you don’t go through the tortures that sports fans have gone through in this town over the decades and also not harbour a lingering fear that somehow, some way this Jets team is going to find a way to break our heart, just like Kevin Glenn broke his arm in that 2007 East Final.

It’s an anxiety born of the same prairie combination of worry and hard-won life experience that causes us every spring to keep the snow shovel handy until at least the May long weekend.

Live in this town long enough and you will have learned the hard way to keep that shovel propped up next to the lawnmower until the Earth’s axis has finally rendered any further snowfall a climactic impossibility. And then you will wait one more week, just to be safe.

So what is the late-season blizzard that could bury this promising Jets team this year?

Well, if you’re looking for something to keep you up at night, I would suggest the team’s greatest strength — it’s youth — is also its greatest liability: they have no playoff experience.

There’s a reason successful teams are often successful for many years. Talent, for sure. But the experience of learning what it takes to win is also priceless and something that can only be learned by doing it.

Want to know why the Las Vegas bookmakers have the Nashville Predators currently listed as slightly better than 4-1 favourites to win the Stanley Cup final, but a Jets team that just beat them Sunday night are still an 11-1 long shot?

It’s because the Predators have been there before and the Jets have not.

That’s worth remembering before you withdraw the life savings and try to corner the market on ticker tape for a Stanley Cup parade down Portage Avenue in June.

We’ve done an unusual amount of celebrating with our athletes the last little while. A city of sports fans more accustomed to drowning their sorrows has been instead soaked with champagne.

The question now is whether the Jets will turn it into the flood of the century or simply bury us, and our grandest hopes, beneath a late-season snowfall.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Read more by Paul Wiecek.


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