BACK IN THE BIGS
HOW WINNIPEG WON LOST AND REGAINED ITS PLACE IN THE NHL
When the Jets flew south in '96, victims of a nose-diving Canadian dollar and the NHL's new sun belt philosophy, “Winnipeg didn't just lose a hockey team. It lost history. It lost prestige. It lost civic pride. It lost Keith Tkachuk” writes Randy Turner in the opening pages of Back In the Bigs. Now, in 2011, as the Jets finally return to Manitoba and an entire country revels in the glorious resurrection of one of Canada's most beloved NHL franchises it's time to look back on the history of professional hockey in Winnipeg.
From the record breaking contract that brought the Golden Jet to the frozen north, from Nilsson to Hawerchuck to Byfuglien, from the WHL to the NHL to the AHL and back again, Turner chronicles the thrilling triumphs and heartbreaking defeats of a city's proud hockey history in this richly illustrated commemorative keepsake for fans across the country. This is the story of an underdog team, once a regional passion, which has become a national obsession. It's an epic, emotional rollercoaster ride from Portage and Main to the barren Phoenix desert and the deep American South, finally returning home to a whiteout in Canada's hockey heartland.
A New Beginning
It’s dusk at the corner of Portage and Main on the day the National Hockey League finds its way back to Winnipeg, and a 21-year-old bricklayer is cradling the hopes and dreams of a generation of Manitoba hockey fans, as well as a half-empty two-four of Great Western.
The trademark wind that defines the historic intersection is howling, strong enough to push Sidney Crosby off his skates if he’d been lucky enough to be there. Rain is spitting sideways. It’s unseasonably cold and miserable as the clock ticks down on the third period of May.
But Brad Gebhardt couldn’t care less. The smile plastered on his face is a reflection of a province gripped in NHL rapture. Or better yet, resurrection.
Gebhardt was just six years old when the Winnipeg Jets left town. He claims to have attended the last game. If every Manitoban who insisted they were there the night the Jets lost 4-1 to the Detroit Red Wings on April 28, 1996 — an evening far more miserable, but for many different reasons — the old barn must have seated a few hundred thousand instead of the sellout crowd of 15,567. But maybe Brad Gebhardt was in that crowd.
No matter. Gebhardt is a young man now, revelling with a dozen or so 20-somethings, waving frantically at passing cars amid chants of ... Read More »
Randy Turner is a National Newspaper Award-winning sportswriter. He was born and raised in Manitoba and has covered sports for the Winnipeg Free Press for twenty years. He's a hockey reporter and columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.