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The birth of the Whiteout
Wayne Gretzky had just experienced his first Winnipeg Whiteout and knew it was going to be a game changer.
“Do you think this dressing up in the team colours is here to stay?” the Great One laughed as he addressed reporters by the players’ bench at the Winnipeg Arena in April 1987.
“No, it’s a fad just like the wave,” a reporter shot back.
More than 30 years later, Winnipeggers continue to honour one of the great traditions in sport. It’s one they helped invent — wearing white to the rink to support the home team.
It all started with a simple slogan: Good Guys Wear White.
“I got summoned to a lunch meeting to talk about something,” Ron Palson, an advertising executive at Palmer Jarvis Communications at the time, told Global News in 2015. Palson met with Madeline Hanson, vice-president of marketing for the Jets, over lunch at Rae and Jerry’s Steakhouse. Hanson had a request: the team needed to do something to fight back against the Calgary Flames, the Jets’ first-round opponents in the 1987 playoffs. Flames fans were dressing all in red — the C of Red — and Hanson wanted Winnipeg to respond.
An early idea was for fans to dress in red, white and blue, Jets colours. That proved to be too complicated.
Palson recommended they keep it simple: ask fans to wear white. They would call it… the Whiteout.
With only a few days to get the word out, the Jets’ marketing team went to work, promoting Good Guys Wear White in print, radio and television.
It was a good idea. It was simple and easy for fans to take part. The only question was would Winnipeggers respond?
“I was driving to the arena that night for that game hoping me and my family weren’t going to be the only ones wearing white,” remembered Palson. “As soon as we got out of the car in the parking lot it was like ‘Oh man, this is happening. This is really working.'”
The Winnipeg Whiteout was born. And everyone took notice.
“More than 15,500 of us showed up at Winnipeg Arena Thursday night, most of us willingly decked out like refugees from an ice cream wagon or the losers in a Marcel Marceau lookalike contest,” wrote Winnipeg Free Press sports editor Hal Sigurdson.
It worked. The Jets won two of three games at home, including a Game 6 shellacking of the Flames. The Jets got goals from Doug Smail (2), Dale Hawerchuk, Gilles Hamel, Brian Mullen, and Ron Wilson to crush Calgary 6-1 and win the Smythe Division semifinal in six games.
The White Noise party was just beginning. A city bus was painted white and covered in Jets logos. A parody of Wang Chung’s smash hit song “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” was made called “Everybody Wear White Tonight.” Everybody was jumping aboard. The Whiteout was here to stay.
“When the fans are able to show their support in that way — someone likened it to when you’re going to a costume party — as you’re getting dressed for the party you start getting hyped for the event. I really think that’s what’s happening. When the fans are getting ready to come here, they’re looking for an event and a full evening and, believe me, they’re getting it and they’re participating,” Hanson told CKND in 1987.
Next up: Gretzky and the vaunted Oilers in the Smythe Division final.
After dropping the first two games at Northlands Coliseum, the Jets returned home, ready to feed off the loudest arena in the NHL.
It was time to become Oiler Spoilers. And the pom-pom waving White House did its part.
“We scored the first goal, but that didn’t quiet the fans down,” Oilers coach Glen Sather told reporters after Game 3. “They were just as loud in the third period as they were in the first.”
Alas, the Jets ran into a hot goalie by the name of Grant Fuhr and came up short, losing 5-2.
They’d lose 4-2 the next game and were swept by the eventual Stanley Cup winning Oilers.
“I think they’re drowning their sorrows,” beer vendor Ray Krause said of Winnipeg fans during Game 4. “Business is pretty good.”
The Jets may have lost the series but they won the hearts of fans and were given a standing ovation after the final horn. The Whiteout helped strengthen a bond between the community and its beloved hockey team.
“The Whiteout really surprised the players the very first time because it was so loud and so bright in the arena that when we came out for the game it was like ‘Wow, this is like a whole new building. Are we in the Winnipeg Arena?’ Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk reminisced. “It took the players by storm and seemed to take the league by storm.”
“The first time I saw it when I played, it was just fantastic,” added Thomas Steen. “We could hear the crowd two hours before the game… (during) the whole game and after the game, too. When we came out, there was goosebumps. You didn’t even get tired during the game. It was fantastic.”
After the disappointment of being eliminated in 1987, the Jets returned to the playoffs the following year. The Whiteout was back, too. They would qualify for the playoffs five more times until relocating to Phoenix in 1996. It wasn’t until 2015, and Jets 2.0, that the Whiteout returned to the place it was born.
More than 30 years later, it’s a tradition that continues today, as one of the best Jets team ever assembled is in the post-season for the first time since 2015.
“If the community hadn’t have bought in all of those years ago, we wouldn’t be talking about it today,” said Palson. “And it’s happening because we have the best fans in hockey.”
Bohuslawsky, Maria. “Jets lose playoff battle” Winnipeg Free Press, April 28, 1987
Global News. “Meet the man behind the Winnipeg Jets’ whiteout.
Penton, Kirk. “Former Winnipeg Jets thrilled to see the Whiteout returning.” Winnipeg Sun, April 15, 2015
Taylor, Scott. “Jets still deserve full house tonight” Winnipeg Free Press, Apr. 27, 1987
Sigurdson, Hal. “Whiteout aside, defence tells tale” Winnipeg Free Press, Apr. 18, 1987