Returning to Canada not always smooth

Many of you probably are already well aware that the great city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, has finally gotten an NHL hockey team back. After 15 years without the Jets, the little prairie city had at last received the good news in the spring that the Atlanta Thrashers were moving north.

I haven't been to Canada for a few years now. I do live in Seattle, and thus, only about 80 miles from the border, but playing rock shows up there is really only worth it if you have a string of dates north of the border.

The original Winnipeg Jets franchise was moved a decade and a half ago, all the way down to Arizona, and suddenly dubbed something called the Phoenix Coyotes. Being a Seattle Sonics fan, I totally get how that sudden loss of a team and a city's identity can throw fans into a tailspin of pain and suffering. And I can feel a kinship with the folks of another "Jet" city that had its first major-league franchise yanked out from under them.

Don't get me wrong, places such as Phoenix and Oklahoma City totally deserve major league franchises. If a city can support a team, then let it happen. But at the expense of a small but rigorous market like Winnipeg, it just seems like unfair bullying.

Last weekend, my band, Loaded, played a one-off show in Winnipeg, at the Canadian "Rock On the Range" festival with Alice in Chains and others. Like Winnipeg, Loaded is still "small market." Of course, like the business people, civic leaders and citizenry of Winnipeg who never gave up their quest to bring the NHL back despite sometimes long odds, we have the heart of a champion but have yet to grow in size to a place where we can wield a mighty hammer. We still get bullied ourselves a bit at places such as customs and immigration stops at international border crossings and shared merchandise tables at gigs.

I have been in rock bands that have spent their fair share of time in the limelight. It comes in handy being well-known at times. If you come through customs and immigration in Canada, for instance, and you are recognized by an officer for being in such-and-such a rock band, chances are good you won't be mistaken as a drug-runner or other border-crosser-with-bad-intent hooligan. In Loaded's case, we were taken to secondary inspection at immigration at the Vancouver, British Columbia, airport on Friday. We were mistaken for something other than a rock band.

Canadian cities, such as Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary, should never, ever be mistaken for anything other than hockey towns. This is center-ice ground zero, and for Winnipeg to have ever have lost an NHL franchise in the first place seems almost diabolical. Ripping the hearts out of hard-core hockey fans and moving their team to a place in the desert that wasn't exactly clamoring for an NHL team isn't fair. But this is big business and with big money at stake, other "players" come into the fore. Commissioners, out-of-town deep-pocket ownership, etc.

I tried to explain to a Canadian Immigration officer that my band was only going to play a show, and this show was for a Canadian company. We had the right paperwork, and none of us is a felon or has ever had trouble of any kind in Canada. I saw that the queue in front of us appeared to be a four-hour line. That's not 15 years long, mind you, but close to it in airport time. If we had to wait, we would simply miss the plane, and hence the gig. I asked this officer to simply "let us through or send us back," because waiting for four hours would serve no purpose at all. It made sense to me, but not to him.

Six weeks ago, Winnipeg got their Jets back. The city was totally on fire with celebration. The city of about 690,000 on the Canadian prairies finally got major-league hockey to see the light. With a couple of good owners and a new arena right in the middle of town, the NHL leaders and power brokers finally saw the light and the errors of their past. Top-level hockey is back in a home where people love it and are passionate about the sport. Makes plain sense to me.

When the immigration officer at the airport rebuffed my plain sense talk, we thought of one last angle; call the promoter in Winnipeg. We were not supposed to use our phones in immigration, but our dilemma was such that we threw caution to the wind. The promoter called the immigration office at the Vancouver airport. Before we knew it, that same immigration officer was sailing us through to our next flight. He did have to make one last snide remark, though, this time to our guitar player: "Hey, Jack Black … sing me a song." Our guitar player is not Jack Black. Our guitar player -- by this time pretty damn tired of these customs and immigration charades -- did not fancy being derided.
"The heck with you, mall cop," he said back. But he didn't say "heck."

Winnipeg said "the heck with you, NHL," and did finally get their team back home safe and sound. Loaded said "the heck with you" to that Canadian customs officer, and yet still made it to our "home," that being a rock stage at the very same MTS Centre that the Jets will be playing this season.

Ah, but coming home on Sunday, back through U.S. Customs was a whole new adventure. Not fun. Apparently, we are now a marked band there at the Vancouver airport customs agencies. Oh, well.

Although Seattle still needs a new arena and a wealthy ownership group similar to True North Sports & Entertainment, which bought and moved the Thrashers to Winnipeg, I'm heartened that my dreams of an NBA team returning to the Emerald City might be realized. … Hopefully sooner than 15 years. I always pull for the underdog, so in the meantime, Go, Jets!

Musician Duff McKagan, who writes for Seattle Weekly, has written for Playboy.com and has his autobiography due out later this year, writes a weekly sports column for ESPN.com. To send him a note, click here and fill out the form.