Dead Man Winnipeg

People who’ve never seen ice hockey before ask how you can tell when a goal has been scored, it all happens so fast. Ask someone who knows and they’ll tell you: never watch the puck, watch the net. Watch for the impact, for the brief expansion of whiteness, like the net is taking a quick breath. That’s how you can scream with the fans and not after them. That’s how, in William Faulkner’s description of players on the ice, the “frantic darting of weightless bugs… on the surface of stagnant pools” becomes “a pattern, a design” which tells you something “urgent and important and true”.

Multiply that ecstatic realisation by 600,000 and you might begin to understand what the game means to the small Canadian city of Winnipeg. Right now, the Jets, Winnipeg’s home team, are battling the Los Angeles Kings (defending champs) and the Calgary Flames for their first playoff berth in recent history. Winnipeg vs. LA? Give me Winnipeg any day. How can any self-respecting leftist root against a city that ‘hosted’ the largest ever general labour strike in North America in 1919? While of interest to the likes of you and me, such history is of no interest to fans who fill the MTS Centre each night to cheer their team – they can only look forward. With a few wins and some puck luck, the Jets will make the playoffs. And, as any fan will tell you, once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. Maybe the Stanley Cup, hockey’s highest trophy, will be marched through the streets of Winnipeg this summer.

The story of the Winnipeg Jets is one riddled with tumult. In telling it, one finds the story of a declining industrial city, of mismanaged land development, of the growing financialisation of professional sports. Indeed, the current incarnation of the Winnipeg jets only arrived in 2011; before then they were the Atlanta Thrashers. The Winnipeg Jets of old vacated the city in 1996 for financial reasons, leaving it barren for fifteen years. Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin’s mocu-docu-fiction My Winnipeg (2007) captures both the systemic causes and personal sadness that came with the loss of the hockey franchise. In his film, Maddin re-stages the seminal moments in his life in a surreal black-and-white style that evokes 1930s cinema. In doing so, Maddin hopes that he will cease to feel attached to Winnipeg and allow himself to leave the decaying and isolated city (though one gets the feeling he secretly loves the sleepwalking, snow-swept town). Ten minutes of My Winnipeg are dedicated to hockey, the Jets, and their ancestors the Winnipeg Maroons. Just as Maddin infuses documentary with an element of fantastical memory to alleviate the medium’s burden of truth, so too does he redeem hockey with a humorous gaze that makes visible the game’s endemic problems. With a wink and a smile, Maddin recognises the sport’s repressed sexuality and co-option by larger economic forces, while never surrendering the position that hockey acts as a crucial repository for working class and personal memory in Winnipeg.

“The NHL never liked us here in Winnipeg”, Maddin declares. When Winnipeg joined the NHL in 1979, the city was forced to build an expansion onto the Old Winnipeg Arena to meet the seating requirements set forth by the league. The amount of seats in an arena, and the type of seats (luxury boxes, for example) are one way that professional sports leagues generate a profit and ceaselessly expand, usually to markets whose taxpayers subsidise multimillion dollar stadiums before private owners price them out of tickets. In the late ‘90s, with an unfavourable exchange rate, a declining economy and an aging arena, Winnipeg became unable to support its franchise and the old Jets left and relocated to Phoenix where they struggle to this day. Years later, in 2004, Winnipeg’s city government decided to build a new arena, the MTS Centre, to house the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. With the construction of the MTS Centre, there was no need for the old Winnipeg Arena that used to house the Jets and the city ordered its destruction.

It is this process of demolition that Maddin captures, or rather re-enacts, in his film, which was made before the return of the Jets. There is an element of hilarious psychoanalysis at play as Maddin calls the old arena his father, hockey his “male parent”, all before listing his memories of the site while a wrecking ball demolishes the arena – its heavy thump the building’s final heartbeat. According to Maddin, he was born in the dressing room and returned the following night to watch a game. As highly erotic images of well-toned male hockey butts flash across the screen, Maddin talks about meeting his first superstar in the locker room. By finding value in the homoerotic aspects of a sport that, in the real world, fuels misogynistic displays of straight masculinity, Maddin allows us both an intimate connection to his ‘life’ and an understanding of how personal memory can create spaces of resistance. As a work of imagined memory (a cumbersome phrase, no doubt), My Winnipeg is able to temporarily liberate hockey both from the greedy hands of the NHL and from the issues of misogyny and racism that plague the sport. While we must be careful to note that such liberation is only in our minds, this does not render it entirely without value. As a work of fantastical documentary that has only a tenuous relationship to any ‘truth’, My Winnipeg never steamrolls reality in order to present another narrative where hockey is an unproblematic over-glorified sport, as in Gavin O’Connor’s fawning Miracle (2004). While Maddin’s film cannot completely redeem the game from the contemporary context, My Winnipeg lets us envision a world where hockey is not corporate, racist, or sexist, though that glimpse comes only at a moment of great loss and occurs only in our minds.

With the stadium collapsing, Maddin imagines an alternate reality where the economic woes of Winnipeg never happened, where the city never joined the NHL. Yet, even this imagination, which takes the form of a hockey game between the fictional “Black Tuesdays” and the “Falcons”, exists only within the on-going demolition of the old arena. The Black Tuesdays comprise old Winnipeg players such as “Billy Mosienko” – scorer of the fastest hat trick in hockey history (allegedly) and “owner of a fantastic bowling alley on North Main”. Hockey has the potential to be intimate, personal and rooted in a sense of communal place. One could accuse him of being nostalgic, but My Winnipeg gestures forward. Perhaps hockey was always doomed to be co-opted by larger economic forces, but can one so quickly write off its potential to allow us to imagine other potentialities? “No one knows why the Black Tuesdays formed”, Maddin’s voiceover states as they begin play, “I’d like to think they did it to protest the grotesque greed of the National Hockey League, which made the sport too rich for this sleepwalking, working class town”. When the Atlanta Thrashers did relocate to Winnipeg, Maddin was hesitant to simply accept them as his Jets for such an act would place his memories at the mercy of today’s NHL. In an interview, Maddin says, “I just wasn’t ready to pick up my pom-poms and cheer [for the Jets]. This wasn’t the same franchise as the old one. This daddy was Atlanta, just dressed up as my old team. It had a newer history, its own past”. Although memory is fragile, it is what provides substance to the past, unlike the recycling of a name.

As the arena collapses in the final shot of the My Winnipeg clip, an eerie chant of “Go Jets, Go!” erupts from an unseen crowd. It is a defiant eulogy, perhaps more optimistic than Maddin’s narration. Can memory outlive the place it was born? Can it be born again, somewhere else? Can Winnipeg fans save the new Jets, the Jets of 2015, from the corporate tyranny of the NHL? One hopes. In Maddin’s formulation, memory is the producer of value. Questions of who is able to form memories in the exorbitantly expensive MTS Centre must be asked. Yet ultimately, we must hope that memories produced by hockey games put on by corporate leagues are as valuable as the memories produced in the smoky haze of the old Winnipeg arena. We must hope that these memories can be mobilised to imagine better futures. I wonder if Winnipeg would have taken its team back if some absurd stipulation was put in the contract that guaranteed the Jets could never win a Stanley Cup. Would the memories alone be worth it for the city? Denied the Cup, would such memories look for potential culmination elsewhere? Find new ways of expressing themselves?

For those of us living outside Winnipeg, we can only think and imagine. Imagine a late night after a game. Imagine walking south-east from the MTS Centre, past the shops and stores of downtown Winnipeg, across Broadway Avenue, past the trees of Bonnycastle park, before coming across the confluence of two great rivers: from the south, the Assiniboine, from the west, its tributary, the Red. If the game is in you that night, you might imagine that the one river is actually diverging into two, each a potential future. One holds Jets in the playoffs, while the other river holds a Stanley Cup, too distant to make out. At this moment in the hockey season, you would be forgiven if, upon witnessing what is actually the joining of two rivers, all your mind could see were a cold schism between defeat and victory. Like Guy Maddin, you would not be the first for whom fiction and fact, memory and future, blurred with hockey in the river’s cold and muddy water.

—Isaac Kaplan

One Response to “Dead Man Winnipeg”
  1. Jamie says:

    Lovely stuff Isaac. This toon fan gazes into the Tyne where fact and fiction, memory and future are similarly blurred – alongside wisps of hope and waves of despair

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