The Return


By John K. Samson

I imagine Monday, October 10th, 2011, the day after the NHL made its now inevitable-seeming return, will forever contain the most stories filed on, the most words used to describe, the most mentions and hits and shares and tags and tweets and trends concerning the city of Winnipeg. Despite a lopsided loss to the Montreal Canadiens, it was lovely to read skilled and fairly extensive pieces about our home town in massive media outlets, based in places like New York and Los Angeles, for the first and likely last time.

Jeff Z. Klein of the New York Times pulled a nice string of quotable expats, including Guy Maddin, who made the sweetly demented assertion that, “The city just woke up—no more sleepwalking… for the first time in decades, we seem to have a civic personality. I can’t believe the transformation in us,” and compared the Atlanta hockey team’s relocation to “ghostly returns in ancient texts like Ulysses’ journey in the Odyssey and the shade of Hamlet’s father strolling the parapet.” A nice image, that, but in my mind the ghost of Hamlet’s father would be the first line of the Phoenix Coyotes, skating out to a smattering of applause for the opening face-off of another long and hopeless season, while Uncle Atlanta Thrasher gloats in Elsinore, soaking in a standing ovation after a 5-1 loss to the Habs. Remember me.

Or maybe NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is Claudius, and the hockey fans of Winnipeg are the dead King? Okay, the analogy breaks down at a certain point. It breaks down right away. We are newly alert, but no recognition of the murder most foul remains in the ecstatic, wondrous celebration that Winnipeg is savouring. In my previous post here I tried to express my misgivings about the new team’s militaristic logo. In response, the Winnipeg Sun printed a column suggesting it would be funny if I were shot to death, and more than a hundred of my fellow Winnipeggers agreed. Gary Bettman, on the other hand, stagy figurehead for everything wrong with the world, pitiless judge, jury and executioner of the Winnipeg Jets Sr., receives: applause, a seat in a luxury box, a generous, polite, warm welcome to the city he so gleefully throttled the hopes from fifteen years ago. This is all more comic than tragic, and certainly doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the team. I’m just having trouble looking at them, like they’re a bright brand new pair of shoes that don’t go with Winnipeg’s outfit yet.

As a kid I think I listened to more Jets games than I saw. I had a small white transistor radio, shaped like a father rectangle to the little 9-volt that made it go. I would lie there listening to games through a mono headphone jack, watched by one thousand carefully cut out photos of goaltenders taped to my bedroom walls. The game I recall most vividly was in January of 1982, when Winnipeg’s Jimmy Mann suckerpunched Pittsburgh’s Paul Gardner, breaking his jaw in two places. I remember the tone of the officially disgusted but clearly thrilled announcer, and tried to picture what a suckerpunch could possibly be, such a weird contraction, sounding both affectionate and hateful, perfect for a nine-year-old boy. But generally I remember waking up to the less insistent tone of the post-game show, or the gentle roar between the stations—the dial for the tuner was loose and slipped too easily into static.

I think I’ll go back to listening instead of watching, and let Dennis Beyak, the new announcer at TSN Radio 1290, deliver the games. I’m still surprised that they do that—have someone tell us these lengthy, plotless, thrilling stories. It’s a job that requires rare skill, and real collaboration with the listeners—thousands of unique interpretations of movements, conducted in each of our heads by words spoken into a microphone high above the action at a glorified skating rink somewhere.

Beyak has an obvious, deep understanding of hockey. His voice is immediately likable, and has a curious faucet-like quality, without a hitch or rise or grain. It just pours out in a somehow engaging monotone, fluidly pitching pork products and used cars between the puck dropping and a player taking possession, calling out last names and the different grades of shots and synonyms for “skates.” Sketching out a better game for us to colour in.


  1. Andy Gish
    Posted October 19, 2011 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Beautifully written & perfectly descriptive, of course. I am sorry that the simple fact that you shared an opinion turned into such mean-spirited fiasco. Where is the gentle Winnipeg that I met?

    I hope you can enjoy listening and also *seeing* the Jets but I respect that sometimes listening is better, especially for now.

    I felt the team’s absence last month as I heard the first games starting. I miss them, but I know they are in good hands. Even after a losing game, they will receive more respect and attention in Winnipeg than here in Atlanta. Treat them well Winnipeg, they surely are going to miss our warm winters!

  2. W Burton
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    I too was deeply saddened by the tone that the Winnipeg Sun took with your article John, and the subsequent response it garnered.
    Thankfully the readership of the Winnipeg Sun is not representative of this city.

  3. Jeannette
    Posted October 15, 2011 at 3:04 am | Permalink

    Well said John. Having been away from Winnipeg for 2 decades now, all I have to do is watch a game to feel right at home.

  4. Paul Sutton
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Hey John K! Thanks for amazingly capturing the effect of hockey, of listening, of being abandoned, of mythologies of return. Your last bit on storytelling and play-by-plays reminds me of the “Notes from a Sportswriter’s Daughter” segments in Donna Haraway’s “A Companion Species Manifesto.” Check it out if you haven’t already!

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The Sporting Life

John K. Samson

John K. Samson is the singer and songwriter for The Weakerthans. He lives in Winnipeg, where he’s also the managing editor and co-founder of a small publishing house, ARP (Arbeiter Ring Publishing). His song "Tournament of Hearts" was named one of the 40 best sports songs of all time by Sports Illustrated.