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Winnipeg and Vancouver: Cities (And NHL Teams) Wedded, For Better or Worse

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The relationship between the two cities is extremely subtle, but it's there. Frankly, it's so subtle that most people in each city probably don't realize it, won't realize it, and probably find it insulting (because people can find anything insulting if there's a comment section available).

Walk around Vancouver, and it won't take you long to find somebody with a connection to Winnipeg. It won't take you long to find somebody who is originally from Canada's Paris of the Prairies (shut up, Saskatoon!) and you might even be a Vancouverite who's actually a former Winnipegger, yourself.

It always seems like the entire population of Vancouver moved there from somewhere else anyway, and Winnipeg always seems like one of the more popular shipping docks, right up there with Toronto and Asia.

Sure, some people on the Left Coast are as concerned with Winnipeg as they are with whether to go Grande or Tall (because, yea, Vancouver is trendy). It's one reason why fans in Calgary and Edmonton have had it up to here with Vancouver fans -- because Vancouver is not cool. At least, not in the "strong, silent type" way.

Vancouver, by and large, represents a place of contradiction, where folks will pay twice as much for food because it says "organic" on the label, or because it says "fair trade" on the tag. And then, when they feel like they need to compensate for that, they riot.

And, as long as we're on stereotypes (*we are), Winnipeg does have grain farmers and it does have canola fields. Oh yeah, and mosquitoes.

But, Winnipeggers like Starbucks, and Winnipeggers can be trendy. And, Vancouverites also like... prairie food. (What is prairie food, anyway?)

As with anything, the truth is always somewhere in between, and the link between the two cities -- and NHL teams -- is there. It was there on Thursday night, if you couldn't tell on television, when the Vancouver Canucks and the Winnipeg Jets faced off for the first time since 1996.

It was there during the pregame and the pre-warmup, when Jets fans packed the lower bowl at Rogers Arena in eager anticipation of their team's arrival -- their first arrival in 16 years. (*And, oh, what a long 16 years it was.) It was there during the first period, when the chants of "GO JETS GO!" dominated The Cable Box (*my preferred nickname for Vancouver's arena, though, is "Dropped Call Arena").

Five minutes into the game, I turned to my brother and said, in a fake announcer's voice, "And the Vancouver Canucks played their first ever road game at Rogers Arena tonight..."

He joked that we should have been wearing white.

It was there during the second period, when the Canucks took a 1-0 lead and there was a general air of sympathy from Canucks fans (remember, I said general), knowing that the Jets had to get at least one point to hold on to eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

(NOTE: Find me one person in Vancouver who doesn't want the Jets to get eighth. Seriously. Try.)

It was awesome for the first 35 minutes and 22 seconds, or so. That was the moment when Jets forward Kyle Wellwood tied the game, 1-1, after a blown check by Canucks forward Zack Kassian. Winnipeg's Evander Kane -- the former Vancouver Giants superstar -- threw it on net and Welly -- the former Vancouver Canuck -- buried the rebound on Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider -- the former Manitoba Moose.

(If those aren't enough examples of ties between these two teams, I'll also mention that former Vancouver Canuck Tanner Glass now plays for the Jets, and that the late Rick Rypien was also a member of both clubs in the final months of his life. Of course, the Canucks' old AHL farm team was the Manitoba Moose, and almost every player who has come up through the Canucks' system has spent some time playing at the Jets' current home dome. 'Nuff said.)

After that tying goal, and especially after Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler made it 2-1 for the Jets at the 3:34 mark of the third period, the cuteness of Winnipeg returning to the NHL was over. They may as well have been the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Canucks won 3-2 in the end, but the story was this: The rivalry had returned.

What rivalry?

The (old) Jets and (old) Canucks always played in fair, fun, and fast-paced affairs. You know, like, back in the day. My first time at a Jets/Canucks game was during their 1992 first-round series, when the last-place Jets pushed the Canucks to seven games. As a four-year-old, I was cheering hard and loud for the Canucks that night, wearing my gorgeous, red-yellow-and-black, #10 Pavel Bure sweater.

The Jets won the game, and took a 1-0 series lead. I was furious, and was livid with my father, who was celebrating over the W by his Jets.

Then, he leaned in and (remember, I was four, so I didn't know this fact yet) he said to me, "Hey, you were born in Winnipeg."

That line changed my life. Well, not really, but... well, kind of. I've spent almost every summer since the age of seven in Manitoba, eating corn off the side of the road and brushing mosquitoes off my forehead. I've spent the rest of my time as a high schooler in White Rock, British Columbia, and a university student in London, Ontario. I still cheer for the Blue Bombers -- because I love them and they're a real team with a fan base that really loves them -- over the B.C. Lions.

I'm a Canucks fan now, of course, and I'm die hard like John McClane, but I cried when the Jets left in 1996, just like everyone else in Winnipeg (although, admittedly, with fewer tissues than an eight-year-old in The Peg).

And, yes, I cried last June, when the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals, and Vancouver burned like Ancient Troy.

But, there is another connection between the two teams, one that is even more relevant now that the Jets are back (and, almost a playoff team) and the Canucks are the reigning President's trophy winner and Stanley Cup finalists...

The Jets and Canucks were always two of Canada's forgotten teams.

The Leafs and Canadiens, of course, are Canada's Ivy League. The country's two biggest cities, two Original Six squads, and the two main characters in Roch Carrier's The Sweater... they're the Chosen Ones. The Edmonton Oilers, meanwhile, won five Stanley Cups from 1984-1990, led by the greatest player of all-time, and the Calgary Flames have been to three Cup finals, winning one in 1989.

(*NOTE: I will not touch on the Ottawa Senators or the (defunct) Quebec Nordiques here. Maybe that means they're actually Canada's two forgotten teams...)

The Jets, meanwhile, were always the Fredo Corleone of Western Canada. They always put together competitive teams, but got buried in Campbell Conference playoff rounds with the Oilers and the Flames - take your pick, they were both too tough to play consecutively, and the Jets were not strong enough.

The Jets' best years were had before they joined the NHL, when they won three Avco Cups in the WHA. Then, they became the team that never made the Stanley Cup Finals, and were forced to flee to Phoenix by a National Hockey League feudal system that was greedy for Southwestern growth (*which never came).

To see them back in the NHL is not only inspiring and feel-good, it's downright impossible to describe. But, some have tried, myself included.

Says The Province's Ed Willes: "If you haven't been moved by what's happened in Winnipeg, then you're the kind of person who didn't cry at the end of Ol' Yeller."

The Canucks, for their part - and, I'm going to be brutally honest here - are one of the more impotent franchises in sports history, considering the city they play in and the history they've had. The Canucks have only played in three Stanley Cup Finals since 1970, but have never won, and in only one of those were the Canucks the favourite (2011).

And, for all the Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Buffalo Sabres out there (other teams that haven't won Stanley Cup), the Canucks have the evil pressure of playing in Canada hanging over their heads. It makes it worse that they have never won, because you hear phrases like this all too often:

"Hey, they're from Vancouver, and a Vancouver team hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1915. If Tampa Bay, North Carolina, and The O.C. have Stanley Cups, why don't the Canucks?"

Now in their 42nd season, the Canucks are still looking for Numero Uno. And, it's not like they've been knocking on the door forever. Whenever anyone talks about "great Canucks teams," they're only referring to a couple instances: 1994, and 2011.

No matter what Canucks fans (*of which I am one) say about the currently awful Flames, Habs, Leafs, or Oilers, those cities' fans will always have one truth to throw our way that we can never comeback from:

"Oh yea, how many Stanley Cups have you won?"

It will plague us until we win, and it's why last season's loss to the Bruins hurt so much.

So, there they were last night, two of Canada's proverbial basement dwellers, facing off for the first time since 1996. Only this time, things were different. The Canucks are now a Stanley Cup favourite for the third year in a row - no longer the lamest franchise in professional hockey. The Jets are now not just in existence, but they're in competition, fighting for playoff position with as many or more points this season the the Oilers, Habs, Leafs, or Flames - no longer Canada's futile franchise that we all have to feel sorry for.

After 60 minutes, the rivalry was back. Wake up, Canada, because the Jets are coming. And, the Canucks may have a Stanley Cup by the time they arrive.

(*NOTE: How much have things changed between these two teams? Not one player in Thursday's game was in the NHL in 1996, and only Sami Salo at age 21 would have been old enough.)

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(*This "article" was originally "published" on White Cover Magazine.)