Jets flying on a wing, and our prayers

After a promising first few games, the Jets have slid back into playoff limbo. This is not unfamiliar for the team and their fans. Since joining the NHL, the Jets have had the look and feel of a team with a cruel weight on their shoulder pads.

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The same old questions arise, producing the same old interpretations. But is it really about playing a full 60 minutes or getting more bodies in front, or staying out of the box? Maybe our focus has become too icebound. Perhaps it’s time for us to cast our gaze to the rafters… and beyond.

Yes, it’s time for Winnipeg to admit that we’ve done something to offend the hockey gods.

The Jets out-chanced the Flyers last Tuesday night. It didn’t show up on the scoreboard. After the game, coach Claude Noel was searching for answers aloud. “We can’t seem to get going, we can’t seem to get untracked, we can’t seem to get consistent, cohesive play,” Noel said. “It’s good, it’s in spurts, it’s not … why is that?” By the team’s practice on Thursday, Noel had passed on the possibility of supernatural intervention, and settled on an earthly explanation. “I don’t like the way we play. We have to play harder.”

When I proposed the idea of hockey gods to Jets players at Thursday’s practice, they were resistant as well. Does goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who’s struggled so far this season, make mention of the hockey gods as a way of interpreting things? “No, I don’t talk like that… anymore,” Pavelec said, as though he were speaking about a dirty habit he’d kicked.

Olli Jokinen rolled his eyes dismissively: “You’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t believe in that stuff,” he said. The veteran centerman is pointless in his last six games. He has four points on the year and is a minus 6.

Two minutes into the Friday night contest against Pittsburgh, the Jets’ leading scorer Tobias Enstrom went into the boards on an innocent looking hit from Pascal Dupuis. He left the game with an apparent shoulder injury. The Jets played a strong game, with a long stretch of sustained pressure in the second period, but fell 3-1 to the Pens.

The non-believers in the Jets room put one in mind of a tragic hero suffering at the hands of the gods for the sin of his hubris. To attentive long-time observers it’s obvious that the Jets are on some modern odyssey, trying to fly home to their Stanley Cup parade, only to be thrown off course again and again by wrathful storm conjuring hockey gods. This has been going on since the team joined the NHL. There were those dynastic eighties Oilers, those first round exits, and then outright banishment!

What did Winnipeg do to offend the hockey gods? Was WHA dominance our sin? How were we supposed to know that the NHL was orthodoxy? Isn’t the thing the game itself? What were we to do? They wouldn’t let us in! We had to play somewhere! Are you telling us the Avco Cup was some simpering siren? And now you want us to apologize for having been good? Oh, you cruel lot!

But whatever the offense to gods was is not the question now. The question is: what can we do to find their favour again?

It seems obvious to me: the city must build a giant temple to honour the hockey gods – a demonstration of our reverence, and a place for a proper hockey god cult to flourish. I know what some of you are thinking: isn’t the MTS Centre our temple? If so, no wonder we’re in trouble, because architecturally speaking it’s a banal pastiche of a department store.

But that’s beside the point, because we all know the old saying: don’t pray where you play. We must construct a holy temple to the hockey gods where nothing happens except tribute, prayer, worship and sacrifices.

I know that the Spectator Tribune’s very own Robert Galston often cautions against the folly of cities pursuing megaprojects, and I almost always agree with him. But this is about hockey! We owe it to our courageous (if prideful) bladed gladiators in blue to build a giant temple and win them favour in the arena. Sorry: the MTS Centre.

It’s time we added something else to the ritual of bellowing “True North” mid-anthem, and show respect for a higher power than ownership. Having the Queen’s picture up didn’t help either, remember?

What does the hockey god pantheon look like? Is there a king and queen and a trickster figure? Is there some multi-armed Vishnu of stick-handling and a Brahman of body-checking? How am I supposed to know? I’m not a holy man. I’m a simple sports reporter. But if we build a giant temple to the hockey gods, I know Winnipeg will see plenty of wise puck priestesses and shinny druids come out of the woodwork to lead our way.

If we do live in a cold, indifferent, hockey-godless universe, then there are some disturbing truths that Jets fans need to face.

For instance: what are you going to say when your son comes home from school and looks up at you, and asks in his harsh playground vernacular: “Daddy, do the Jets suck?” Are you going to say: “No son. The Jets don’t suck. They just need to get more ‘A’ games from some players, up the compete level and stay out of the box?”

Your son isn’t an idiot. He watches the games. He knows hockey.

But he also knows life. He knows life has bouncing pucks, freak accident injuries, and strange deflections. He knows that there are some things beyond both our understanding and our control. And he’ll know you’re speaking truths when you look into his eyes and say: “No son. The Jets don’t suck. They’re just out of favour with the hockey gods at the moment. But we’re going to do something about it.”

Ross McCannell is a tree-planter and writer who winters in Winnipeg. His last piece about the Jets, in which he predicted that the loss of Phil Housley would result in a marked decline in Teemu Selanne’s scoring, appeared in his Grade 8 student paper.