Winnipeg fan sends jersey on 31-city tour to honour buddy

A Winnipeg hockey fan is planning a season-long memorial for a friend who died before he could see an NHL game. He's doing it with the help of a "family" of hockey fans from across North America.

Young Saskatchewan man died in crash before he could attend dreamed-about NHL game

Graeme Fortlage is getting hockey fans from around North American to help shepherd a Winnipeg Jets jersey with his late friend's name on it to all 31 NHL arenas. (Janice Grant/CBC)

A Winnipeg hockey fan is planning a season-long memorial for a friend who died before he could see an NHL game.

He's doing it with the help of a "family" of hockey fans from across North America.

Graeme Fortlage and Carter Jansen weren't even living in the same province when their close friendship began in 2008, when they were both in junior high.

Fortlage lived in Winnipeg, and Jansen in the tiny farming and ranching community of Beechy, Sask., about 200 kilometres west of Regina.

"We met online playing Xbox Live. I don't remember the game. And then it just grew into more and more games, and then, after a couple of years after knowing each other, we started playing the NHL games together, and shared an instant love for hockey."

After the Jets came back to Winnipeg in 2011, breaks in the game play would be full of talk about the beloved team — its prospects, its strengths, its weaknesses — and how one day, the two friends would go to a Jets game together.

But the nine-plus-hour drive for Jansen, along with his work commitments and money considerations, kept it just a dream for years, Fortlage said.

Then the stars seemed to be aligning in spring 2016. That fall, Jansen was going to be at the University of Regina, where he planned to study engineering. That put him three hours closer to Winnipeg.

They made a firm decision to go to the Jets 2016-17 season opener.

Jansen was excited about what would be his first ever NHL game, Fortlage said, but it wasn't to be.

On May 19, 2016, Jansen, 21, was driving alone in his pickup truck just east of Beechy, when he was killed in a collision with a semi-trailer truck. He died at the scene.

Fortlage learned about the death from another Xbox friend. It hit him hard. He stopped gaming for quite a while. 

During an evening of reminiscing with some mutual friends, he got the idea for a unique tribute.

"It kind of popped into my head out of the blue: Since he never actually made it to any Jets games ever — or any NHL games ever — was to try and create this memorial jersey for him."

Fortlage is in the process of customizing a jersey with Jansen's name on it and Number 10 — his number from when he played hockey.

When it's ready, the memorial jersey will embark on quite the journey.

"It will tour around to every single NHL arena, all 31 of them," Fortlage said.

He wants the person shepherding the jersey on each particular day to drape the jersey over a seat, then take a picture of it from the back so Jansen's name and number are clearly visible.

"So it would be his seat, watching the game, or practice, or whatever is going on," he said, explaining it doesn't have to be a game, as long at the jersey gets in the building.

Fortlage laughed when he was asked how challenging it has been to organize it all.

"It's a logistical nightmare. I'm still struggling to schedule everything in, and there's still bits and pieces to figure out. But I've got the majority of the teams covered."

He has reached out through social media sites, including, to find hockey fans willing to look after the jersey, take the pics and then send it along to the next city.

Some fans, such as Kimberly Matthews of Nashville, offered to look after multiple games.

Matthews is a lifelong Dallas Stars fan who recently moved to Nashville. Her passion for hockey runs deep.

"I travel a lot for each season to watch games at multiple arenas," said Matthews.

"I gave him a list of the arenas I am visiting this season, and offered to bring the jersey along."

Matthews will cover eight cities for Fortlage, including Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal and of course Dallas and Nashville.

She's among 14 fans who have stepped up so far.

Fans have even offered to cover the cost of mailing the jersey or shipping it overnight when that is necessary. 

Matthews isn't surprised that hockey fans are coming through. She describes them as a kind of family.

"Absolutely close. I have made (what I hope to be) lifelong friends all over the U.S. and Canada that were met strictly through hockey. We might all be huge rivals when we play each other, but that just makes the friendships more interesting and fun," said Matthews, who travelled to Winnipeg to see a Jets game in October 2016.

Helen Yoon, a New York Rangers Fan, will look after the jersey for Rangers, Islanders and Devils home games.

"I'm so honoured and privileged to be part of this beautiful project," she said. "I'm looking forward to receiving the jersey before the Jets come to Brooklyn for the Islanders in December," adding she might even try to take it to a baseball stadium, Citi Field, for the NHL 2018 Winter Classic on New Year's Day.

Fortlage is looking for Sharks, Panthers, Lightning, Capitals, Flyers, Bruins and Blackhawks fans to help out, but he's confident he'll get there. 

First, however, he has to find a ticket to the Jets home opener here on Oct. 4. 

Before considering the project, Fortlage contacted Jansen's family to see what they thought.  

Jacey Jansen, Carter's younger sister, said the family is moved by the tribute. 

"We were a little shocked at first, because we'd never met Graeme, but we heard Carter talk about him, and to learn that one of Carter's friends would go this far to make one of Carter's dreams become a little real … it means a lot to our family that Graeme is planning this and organizing this." 

She described her brother as quiet and hard-working, a young man who loved helping out on the family farm, and worked on a cousin's farm until his death. 

Fortlage said when the season is over, he will assemble the pictures and the jersey in a frame and present it to Jansen's family. 

Jacey Carter said the family already has a spot chosen for the special memorial. 

"We have a little area in our living room already with some of our favourite pictures of him and a quote that suited him, so I'm thinking the pictures and jersey will hang close to that.

"The quote is from a country song — Humble and Kind by Tim McGraw. Humble and kind is what Carter was. It suits Carter so well."