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Location and circumstance - Winnipeg and hockey - made us friends, Cameron MacKay writes. But childhood connections last longer than sports-team loyalties

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Tuesday, October 9, 2018 – Page A16

It is a midsummer night in Winnipeg - late - just a touch past midnight. I am cycling straight up the middle of the street. The city is dark and still, nearly abandoned, and the weight of the day has lifted. There is something about cycling at night - light and limitless, everything else having fallen away.

I am flanked by two childhood friends, Brett and Dave. With fresh black asphalt below, we ride sideby-side, the street to ourselves, north toward home.

The three of us, once boys growing up on the same suburban street, have all recently crossed that threshold of 40. Our friendship grew from location and circumstance. It hangs on thanks to some stubborn roots.

We are returning from drafting our seats for next year's Winnipeg Jets games. We share season tickets for the city's pride and joy (along with two other childhood friends) and have a tradition of gathering in the summer to make our selections. It helps to plan our winters well in advance, but mainly it's an excuse to get together in the off-season.

The street rolls out ahead of us, seemingly endless. We pedal with no more of a conscious effort than that with which we breathe - swerving, smiling, Dave explaining the level of genius behind his picks.

This could well be a scene from three decades earlier, as preteens with Slurpees propped against our handlebars, except an 11-year old me wouldn't have been coming from a Jets draft. I wasn't a hockey kid. Brett and Dave were and each day after school they turned Linacre Road into a street-hockey rink. Brett would use me like a pylon for stickhandling drills, Dave ripped slapshots past my ear. I would have preferred we engaged in something else, but what am I going to do - sit inside by myself?

You see friendship, at that age, isn't based on personal compatibility. You don't choose your friends. Not really.

After school, you played with whomever was around. There were no play dates. My parents weren't going to helicopter me to another neighbourhood just to find a kid who, like me, would rather break out his wrestling figures than hockey nets. No - I had no choice but to pick up a hockey stick and head outside.

Playing hockey inevitably led to watching hockey, then trading cards, video games and hockey pools. This was the early nineties and we all became, of course, Jets fans. But, needing a way to differentiate ourselves, we each took on a second team as well. Brett went with the St. Louis Blues, Dave the New Jersey Devils and I the Boston Bruins. We could cheer or mourn together with the Jets, but when our other team won or a friend's lost, it was our chance to rub it in their face. This seemed strangely important to our friendship.

So I came to embrace hockey - and then hockey left town. The Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes. I was 19 years old. We had all just tumbled out of high school, officially adults and aware we weren't much longer for Linacre Road. We were losing the two things that had brought us together: location and, in the form of the Winnipeg Jets, circumstance.

I don't think I was considering all of this when we made signs for those "Save Our Jets" rallies. I know that as I sat next to Dave at that final Jets game in the old Winnipeg Arena, my only thoughts were on the loss of the team. But I understand now why it was so hard to leave our seats that night.

I read somewhere that men, once adults, rarely make new friendships. Perhaps you become friendly with a neighbour or colleague, maybe share the occasional dinner with other couples, but that's not what we're talking about here. Friendship is not defined by mere friendliness. In fact, being too polite with someone is a sure sign you are merely acquaintances. We've never had to worry about that.

I lift my gaze to the flashing red stoplight at the end of the street. It has drawn no closer (a sensation enhanced, perhaps, by some mild intoxication).

Have we been biking that casually? I can only imagine how slowly we will ramble along in another 30 years.

Our friendship survived the death of the Jets.

Barely. We would move on, move out, take on the general tasks of adulthood. We thought we would still follow hockey - stick with the Jets in Arizona and remain tied to our other teams - but we didn't.

Somehow it just wasn't the same. It was all too far away. And location and circumstance, that which had brought us together, began now to work against us.

I stayed connected with Brett. We both went to the same university, although in separate faculties, and developed other shared interests. I would go for long periods of time - years - without seeing Dave. When we did connect, though, time collapsed and we picked up wherever we had left off - no need for small talk or politeness.

Tonight, as always, stories from Linacre Road are shared (the Freddie Olausson slapshots, playing jawbreaker mini-hockey and so on).

Someone will dig one up that I haven't thought about since it first happened and we will all be jolted right back to that time and place.

I've heard it said that childhood friends are like having access to a time machine. Sure, being in their presence is the closest we come to visiting the past, and it's hard to offer a better explanation as to how the Jets have miraculously returned to the city, but it's more than simple nostalgia. This bike ride is evidence of that. We are too in the moment, pedalling through this boundless night, to be stuck in the past. I am surrounded by my childhood, yes, but I am fully present. If anything, we are outside of time, the lights at the end of the street never nearing.

Our thoughts reach forward and back at once. In the fall, we will take our seats in the upper bowl and watch this team we grew up with. We will sit, sideby-side, just as we now cycle. Just as we once played.

Just as we will always find ourselves.

At the end of the street, the spell is broken. This is where we break off. I take in a last rush of night air before snapping back into the commonly shared space-time, and as I lean to my right and round toward home, away from my friends, none of us so much as slows down for a parting wave. I smile. No polite goodbyes. No goodbyes at all.

Cameron MacKay lives in Winnipeg (and will be sitting with Brett at the Jets home opener).

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