Fans take chill off Winnipeg

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- I'm sitting in a bar called Pockets in downtown Winnipeg. Outside, snowflakes the size of crab cakes blanket the city.

Gale-force winds rip in from the prairie. The forecast for the next day is "snow and blowing snow." It's the kind of storm that would paralyze Baltimore for a week.

Gerald Bazylewski waves his hand.

"This isn't a storm," he says. "This is first snow."

First snow.

Usually, Winnipeg gets hit by Halloween.

This year, the heavens held out until Nov. 17.

"Now everyone can go inside for six months," Bazylewski says, hoisting a beer and laughing.

*

Let's not call this a heated rivalry. Not with five inches of snow on the ground. Not with nightly temperatures dipping into the teens.

Actually, the weather will be downright tropical for today's Eastern Division final between Baltimore and Winnipeg.

Cloudy skies, temperatures around freezing, 40 percent chance of evening flurries. Winnipeg fans are cursing the forecast. The headlines read, "Let there be snow!"

And let frostbite ring.

In 1958, Baltimore football fans rode the train to New York to watch the Colts beat the Giants in the greatest game ever played.

In 1994, the CFLs' biggest rival is in a city 65 miles north of Emerson, N.D., a city 1,300 miles west of Toronto.

Don't worry, no one in Winnipeg knows where Baltimore is, either.

"The states," Bazylewski announces, showing the wisdom of his 35 years.

I try another bar.

"In Maryland, on the East Coast, below Washington, D.C.," says Rick MacKenzie, a student at the University of Manitoba.

Almost, college boy.

MacKenzie is watching the Roy Jones-James Toney fight at a sports bar called BCW's. His friend, Cary Fillion, is fascinated to meet a reporter from Baltimore.

"Have you ever interviewed Cal?" he asks.

Yes, my friend, a long time ago, back when there was baseball.

"He's my idol."

It seems Fillion plays baseball -- well, not baseball, but fastball, the Canadian term for fast-pitch softball. He's a 24-year-old shortstop. And the Orioles are his favorite team.

His father, Dennis, says, "Seeing as how he's from Baltimore, why don't you tell him how you wore your sideburns for three years?"

Cary beams.

"Everyone asked, 'What the hell is that?'

"I said, 'Brady.' "

Score one for the global village.

It's a small world, after all.

*

Now, about Winnipeg:

It's the sixth-largest city in Canada, the capital of Manitoba, a bustling urban center rising over two rivers, with skyscrapers and everything.

Its location might be considered remote, but this is hardly Eskimo country. Indeed, the population of 650,000 is more ethnically diverse than Baltimore's.

You can go to Chinatown, Little Italy and the French Quarter. You can get Mongolian barbecue, or visit the Filipino Evangelical Church.

Mostly, you can freeze.

Winter temperatures hover around zero, and can reach 30 below. But the big thing is the wind. It's vicious and relentless, in your face wherever you turn.

The intersection of Portage and Main is known as the coldest street corner in North America. Which explains the need for climate-controlled skyways and underground shopping malls.

Cars come equipped with block heaters to keep the engines from freezing. Electrical cords extend through the grills. At night, people plug in their cars.

The snow? It's not as bad as you think. Winnipeg averages 44 to 56 inches annually -- more than twice Baltimore's average of 20.6, but nothing to make Buffalo jealous.

The crazy part is, this isn't great ski country. The prairie is so flat, the nearest quality downhill skiing is in Banff, a 16-hour drive away.

Cross-country skiing is the most popular outdoor winter sport. Municipal golf courses are kept open to serve as cross-country trails.

So, how bad is it?

Consider the Bombers' final regular-season game in 1991. That week, Winnipeg was hit by an ice storm, then a huge snowfall.

The snow could not be entirely removed, so the game was played on a 90-yard field with 10-yard end zones, turning the CFL into the Condensed Football League.

"You know how you see the Chicago Bears sitting around their heaters?" Gerald Bazylewski says. "In the CFL, that isn't a heater day. That's a fall day."

*

And this is game day.

Bazylewski drops the phrase "chipping off" casually in conversation -- as in the ice he'll be chipping off his seat today at Winnipeg Stadium.

And he brags of a concoction known as "Blueberry Tea" -- a mixture of hot tea, amaretto and Grand Marnier that he drinks to keep warm at Bombers games.

HTC He'll need the help today, because the 32,468-seat stadium isn't likely to be full. As of 2:30 p.m. yesterday, only 23,500 tickets had been sold.

Fans support the Bombers, a community-owned, nonprofit organization with a 65-year history. It's just that on cold days, they prefer to stay home and watch on TV.

"In Canada, very few fans are gung-ho," Bazylewski says. "You won't see flag-waving here. But when it comes down to city pride, if the Bombers win, the Grey Cup parties will rock."

Indeed, these are rabid sports fans.

With the NHL Jets on strike, a crowd of 7,555 filed into the Winnipeg Arena on Friday night to attend a Western Hockey League game between the Brandon Wheat Kings and Lethbridge Hurricanes.

At BCW's, there are framed hockey jerseys, NFL souvenirs and a pennant from the Winnipeg Goldeyes, an independent Double-A franchise that began play last season in the Northern League.

Fans debate the merits of the oft-injured Matt Dunigan -- or "The Glass Quarterback," as he is known to his critics. They suggest ** nicknames for the CFLs. They even talk baseball.

On the night Cary Fillion proclaims his fondness for Cal Ripken, his father Dennis labels the Montreal Expos' outfield as "possibly the best in the history of baseball."

"Come on, you Canadian," someone else at the table replies.

Back at The Pocket, Bazylewski tells of his nine-hour trips to Minneapolis to see the Toronto Blue Jays, and how the Italian community in Winnipeg went wild during the World Cup.

For some reason, he's still furious that former Bears coach Mike Ditka chose William "Refrigerator" Perry over Walter Payton to score the final touchdown of the 1986 Super Bowl.

"It should have gone to Payton," Bazylewski says, staring at his beer. "It shouldn't have gone to anyone else. Payton deserved that touchdown."

Outside, it's snowing.

Inside, it could be any city.

Cold weather, hot arguments.

( New rivals, new friends.

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