Jets fan 'floored' by NHL players, others embracing jersey tribute to late friend
Requests from NHL players, appearance at Stanley Cup final, Upper Deck Sports card planned for jersey
A Winnipeg Jets fan's tribute to a deceased friend has grabbed the attention of the NHL, several players, fans and even a hockey card company, who are all clamouring to be part of it.
"It's a little surreal right now. I'm still in a spot trying to come to terms with being DM'd on Twitter by NHL teams," said Graeme Fortlage.
"I'm absolutely floored. The response from everybody has just been so humbling. It's gotten to the point [that] it's beyond words, that there's no way that you can really thank everybody properly for what they've done."
He hatched a plan last fall to customize a special Jets jersey for his friend, Carter Jansen, and have fans across the league team up to chaperone it to every NHL arena during the season. Jansen was 21 when he died in a highway crash a few months before he planned to see his first live NHL game with fellow Winnipeg Jets fan Fortlage.
Fortlage was struggling to get some traction for his plan until a CBC story in September got noticed. Since then it has taken off like Nic Ehlers on a breakaway.
"It's crazy. It's insane. I probably get 10-20 offers from people every day," he said.
The jersey has now visited 20 arenas with 11 more to go, and people have committed to a schedule to get it to all of the remaining rinks.
Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-André Fleury personally asked to meet the jersey on its arrival in Las Vegas, and the L.A. Kings have promised to give it "royal" treatment when it goes to the Staples Center in Los Angeles in April.
Even though the jersey has already made an appearance in Tampa Bay, it is being flown back because fans requested it be at the Lightning's home arena for the NHL All-Star game.
Last week, the Upper Deck Sports Cards company emailed Fortlage, saying they want to create a card honouring the jersey as part of a special heroes series.
And the NHL has promised Fortlage that wherever the Stanley Cup final is played this year, they will fly out him and the jersey to be there.
"When I initially set off on this whole entire thing, I just wanted to put together what I felt was a fitting tribute to my friend," he said. "What it's become now is the farthest point of what I could ever have dreamed it could have been."
Fortlage and Jansen met playing video games online and soon forged a strong bond over hockey. They became instant Jets fans when the team relocated to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011.
Jansen — who lived in the rural ranching community of Beechy, Sask., about 200 kilometres west of Regina — had never been to a big-league game, so the pair made a plan for him to drive to Winnipeg, where they would take in the Jets 2016-17 season opener.
But a few months before that date, Jansen was killed in a highway crash.
In 2017, Fortlage put together a Facebook page called Carter's NHL Jersey Tour to promote the plan and find people who could help carry it out.
Now it's filled with images of fans who show off the jersey in the various arenas, of players holding it and signing it and of NHL personalities — such as former NHL goalie Darren Pang, who now does game broadcasts and whose voice is featured on some of those video games Fortlage and Jansen played together.
Fans have also taken the jersey to see the Stanley Cup or on mini tours of their cities, to see monuments and significant buildings.
This past weekend, the jersey was in Calgary, where Fortlage met up with Jansen's mom and dad and siblings for the first time.
"It was extremely emotional but, at the same time, very therapeutic to get to finally meet the family," Fortlage said, adding they swapped stories about Jansen.
"It was an absolute magical weekend."
As for the royal treatment the Kings have promised, Fortlage isn't sure what that means, but he expects another emotional moment.
"I assume it's going to be an absolute fitting way to end the jersey tour," he said.
The entire experience has convinced him that "hockey fans are the greatest fans in sports," but has also shown him something else.
"We might all hate each other when our teams are playing — but as soon as the game is done, hockey is not just teams in a league. It's a family."
With files from Janice Grant