By HOWARD BERGER
WINNIPEG (Dec. 30) – The last time I covered a regular-season NHL game in this city I had just turned 37; was not yet a father; felt profound grief over the death of my mother two months earlier… and I spent the night at Winnipeg Arena passing a kidney stone.
That was back on Feb. 28, 1996, when the Maple Leafs and the original Winnipeg Jets faced off for the final time here in the Manitoba capital. Five weeks later – amid sadness and disappointment – the Jets marched off to Phoenix. The professional sporting void in this city was never filled until the Atlanta Thrashers moved north – way north – for the current hockey season and it took me about eight seconds to absorb the excitement after stepping off plane from Toronto early Friday evening.
The Winnipeg Jets are back… and you can feel it.
Closing my eyes, I can still see the expression of concern and mild panic on the face of Richard Nairn, the Jets’ director of media relations during my kidney stone episode nearly 16 years ago. I tried not to let on that I was in colossal pain, but I couldn’t sit still and sweat was pouring off my redened face – both of which provided Nairn a clue that something was amiss. When I finally confessed my situation, Richard reacted as if I were having a paralytic stroke. He asked me if I wanted to lay down behind the press box; if he could get me a cold washcloth for my face, and whether or not he should dial 9-1-1. Even feeling as I was, I couldn’t help but chuckle at his genuine, heart-felt over-reaction.
The only up-side of kidney-stone pain is that it can disappear almost instantly and – bless the lord – that’s what happened sometime during the second period of the Leafs-Jets game.
All of these years later, I’m still not sure who was more relieved: me or Richard. My concerned pal moved with the Jets to Arizona and is still working for the Coyotes as one of the most likable and respected p.r. flacks in the league.
When not in the throes of a medical crisis, I thoroughly enjoyed covering hockey games at the old barn on Maroons Rd. The press box at Winnipeg Arena was extremely close to the ice by today’s NHL standards; it hovered directly over the boards and I remember having to lean out a foot or so to watch the play when it was beneath me. The late, great John Ferguson Sr., who managed the Jets and was so kind to me early in my career, had a booming voice and a temper to match. On more than one occasion, I can recall a frightened gasp from the spectators below the press box as Fergie leaned out and blasted the referee with an obscenity-laced tirade. If the building was quiet, you could hear the assault in all corners.
Winnipeg Arena is the place where Cliff Fletcher was the angriest I’ve ever seen him. Cliff was GM of the Leafs in the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95 when mild-mannered Teemu Selanne – then playing for the Jets – hauled off and whacked Leafs defenseman Dimitri Mironov with a two-hander from out in left field. The wild slash contacted Mironov on the protective side-plate of his pant and it echoed through the arena. Cliff stormed out of his private booth and entered the main press area next door. He stood there looking at us – his face a bright shade of magenta – and clearly wanted to say something. But, the words never came and after a gyrating pantomime, he turned around, stomped back out, and nearly slammed the door off its hinges.
In November of 1991, while covering the Grey Cup here between the Toronto Argonauts and Calgary Stampeders for CJCL AM-1430 (precursor to The Fan-590), no person would have been able to convince me that Winnipeg wasn’t the coldest place on Earth. The closest I’ve ever felt to death was standing in the middle of the field at Winnipeg Stadium (as it was then known) with a wireless microphone – two hours before game time – and waiting desperately for my producer back home, Chris Clarke, to throw to me for a live update. Though it was sunny and windless that afternoon, the temperature was something like minus-35 and I honestly felt I was going to pass out in the 90 seconds or so it took for Chris to shut up whoever was gabbing on the air in the studio. Clarkie now works for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and he still gives me the gears over that episode.
Traveling here from Raleigh, N.C. on Friday – with a connection in Toronto – presented quite the visual contrast, as you can see in my travel-log images below:
IT WAS ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS IN RALEIGH ON FRIDAY MORNING AS I DROVE TO THE AIRPORT FOR MY 12:30 P.M. AIR CANADA FLIGHT TO TORONTO.
AFTER AN AMERICAN EAGLE JET LANDED IN FRONT OF US (ABOVE), WE DEPARTED TO THE WEST OFF RUNWAY-23 AT RDU, EXPECTING A ONE-HOUR AND 17-MINUTE FLIGHT TO PEARSON AIRPORT. WHEN THE TRIP BEGAN TO EXCEED 1:40 IN LENGTH, WE KNEW SOMETHING WAS UP… THAT SOMETHING MORE THAN EVIDENT OUT THE WINDOW OF THE PLANE (BELOW) AFTER WE FINALLY TOUCHED DOWN.
TORONTO WAS COMPLETELY SOCKED IN ON FRIDAY AFTERNOON, SO MUCH SO THAT THE TOWER ATOP TERMINAL ONE THAT CONTROLS RAMP TRAFFIC WAS LOST IN THE LOW CLOUD-COVER. I WAS RATHER RELIEVED WHEN OUR EMBRAER-190 JET LIFTED OFF FROM RUNWAY-5 (BELOW) FOR WINNIPEG WITHOUT INCIDENT.
DURING THE TWO-HOUR-AND-15-MINUTE TRIP HERE – AND WHILE FLYING SOUTH OF DRYDEN, ONT. – THE SETTING SUN PRESENTED QUITE AN ARRAY OF COLOR ON THE HORIZON (ABOVE AND BELOW).
THE NEW TERMINAL AT WINNIPEG AIRPORT IS ALL FANCIED UP (ABOVE) AND THE SIGN ON THE WALL NEXT TO BAGGAGE CLAIM (BELOW) TELLS YOU THE BIG STORY.
WHILE CABBING IT DOWNTOWN ALONG PORTAGE AVE. (ABOVE), WE PASSED THE ARENA WHERE THE MAPLE LEAFS AND JETS WILL FACE-OFF ON NEW YEAR’S EVE.
THE FAMED INTERSECTION OF PORTAGE AND MAIN (ABOVE) FROM MY 20th-FLOOR HOTEL WINDOW. IT’S GREAT TO BE BACK IN THE ‘PEG.