The first time is always awkward

Have you ever broken up with someone, and then got back together with them? Do you recall how it felt at first—experiencing the familiarity that for so long was shared and happy and a part of both of your lives yet at the same time withdrawing into the safe, solitary place that sheltered you when what you needed most was refuge and protection?

For a time you will have told yourself things to make you feel better, to justify the situation. Things like, “I’m the only person I can trust,” and, “We’re better off apart, anyway.”

But the feelings remained, burdening the heart and the lungs during the day and turning what were once sweet dreams into nightmares. And after a time, the thought: “We could always give it another try.”

And so you do, and you get back into it knowing full well how awkward the first meeting will be, how before things can ever be like they were you’ll have to go through an awkward period where conversations only skim the surface and trust is a far off thing.

But you have an end result in mind. Restoration. The thought of it is what brought you back together in the first place, and if you can survive the awkwardness and discomfort you just might stand a chance of realizing it.

Oh, but it’s uncomfortable at first. So, so uncomfortable. And there are moments when, after something has happened that has left you both red-faced, you think to yourself, “Is it really worth it?”

I had a hard time getting my head around the atmosphere inside MTS Centre on Saturday. Less than two weeks earlier the National Hockey League and its Players Association had been at loggerheads over a new collective bargaining agreement, and the number of people in my circle vowing to never again embrace the NHL product was growing by the day.

Some were uncharacteristically apathetic; others were furious. A few, like jilted lovers, moped about in search of something to fill the void, a sponge to soak up the hurt. Everyone drank too much.

Many of the 15,000 people who filled the arena to see the Winnipeg Jets raise the curtain on a shortened season could have fit into one of those categories before they decided to give it another try. The January 6 announcement that a tentative deal had been reached to end the lockout was the first step in the healing process; reengagement was the second. And just in case things got too uncomfortable to be productive, beer was half price.

By the time I reached my perch in the box the building was already filling up. I had arrived early to see exactly that—to watch the fans come in and to see how they would come.

They did not come all at once. There was none of the mid-season concession rush before the opening faceoff. That would have been too familiar. Instead, they trickled in from the freezing cold for two hours before puck-drop, slowly and individually re-establishing their place in the comfort zone.

If there was anything of a mob about this crowd it was difficult to detect. Sure, they gave their Jets a raucous welcome during the pre-game introductions, and true to form they harassed Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson and Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson. But after the first 10 minutes their energy seemed collectively sapped, and as the game wore on their attempts at “Go Jets Go!” sounded disjointed, even half-hearted.

The Senators, and their stifling brand of hockey, had more than a little to do with the peculiar quiet that quickly overwhelmed the building. Although Dustin Byfuglien had given the Jets the lead with a hard shot that evaded the otherwise solid Anderson, Milan Michalek’s goal less than four minutes later restored level terms; and after Chris Neil put Ottawa ahead in the second period the guests smothered the game as a spectacle.

At times it was well near unwatchable—inferior, even, to some exhibition games I’ve seen. If it was, as Senators coach Paul MacLean later described it, “a dog’s breakfast,” even the dog must have been starving to consume the fare presented him.

And yet, there were some moments of genuine quality. Byfuglien’s dangle early in the third period drew pockets of applause, and some offensive zone pressure from the Jets in the final few minutes created as much excitement as there had been to that point. By then, however, Ottawa had taken a two-goal lead thanks to the excellent Karlsson, and with only two minutes left on the clock Kyle Turris put the finishing touches on a Senators win with an accurate wrist shot.

By the final buzzer the arena was half-empty. A red string of tail-lights was already inching its way through the northeast parking lot and collars were being pulled over frost-bitten faces awaiting the transit buses that always seemed too long in coming. Someone picked up the 50/50 winnings, more than $52,000. Some things never change. On the coldest nights, in the most awkward of circumstances, familiarity is still the blanket that keeps you safe and warm.

As are the jerseys, the cardboard pizza and the people in the seats next to you. Those are the things you remember fondly from before, even if you didn’t realize it. Yes, there is the game, but the game is always there, somewhere. It’s the experience that’s irreplaceable, the familiarity that crushed you most of all when it was taken away.

The first meeting was never going to be comfortable. Do you hug? Do you shake hands? Do you lightly kiss the cheek? And who pays for the coffee?

You’ve been worrying that you’ll run out of things to talk about. That you’ll just stare into your cup and drink it way too fast and excuse yourself to go to the washroom where at least you can breathe a bit more easily.

But then you talk. You don’t talk about anything, really. You just talk. Somehow the words come easily and there is even laughter. Sometimes the eyes meet knowingly and then you both look away and smile. You blush. It’s so familiar. So, so familiar.

And you feel comfortable. You sink way back into your seat and dig that end result from the back of your mind. Restoration. It might actually be possible. It’ll take a whole lot of work, but it just might be possible.

And you tell yourself, “We could always give it another try.”


Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @jerradpeters