Deserters vs. loyalists: How Winnipeggers living in Las Vegas are reconciling dual hockey loves

Winnipeg expats in Las Vegas are struggling to reconcile their hometown hockey loyalties with their embrace of the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Jets vs. Knights series poses a dilemma for Canadians in Sin City, especially if they bleed double blue

Kevin Churko, from Moose Jaw, Sask., and Winnipeg-born musician Brent Fitz, right, both live in Las Vegas. The expat Canadians, seen here at Churko's studio, the Hideout, support opposite sides in the Winnipeg Jets-Vegas Golden Knights series. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Mike Neufeld was 10 years old on May 16, 1995, when his dad picked him up at school, placed him on a motorcycle and drove him downtown to attend the ultimately unsuccessful Save the Jets rally at The Forks.

"I remember being down there when we lost 'em. The city took a hit," said Neufeld, a former Winnipegger who now lives and works as a musician in Las Vegas. "It was a sad day."

It was another year before the original Jets moved to Phoenix, in the Sonoran Desert. Neufeld waited until 2009 to make his own desert move, to the Mojave of southeastern Nevada.

He's now among dozens of Winnipeg expats who are struggling to reconcile their hometown hockey loyalties with their embrace of the Vegas Golden Knights.

"Obviously, if you're a Jets fan — if you're from Winnipeg — it's in your blood," said the former Winnipegger, wearing in a Vegas jersey on a 32 C morning.

"I'm really proud to be a Knights fan too now," he said. "It's so great. It unified the city, especially after some horrific events that happened here in town."

On Oct. 1, 2017, 58 people were killed and hundreds more were injured when a gunman holed up in a Mandalay Bay hotel room fired more than a thousand rounds at a crowd of concertgoers attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip.

Former Winnipegger Tanya Killeen, who lives in Las Vegas, remains a Jets fan. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Vegas fans say the coincidence of the tragedy with the start of the Golden Knights' first season — the team is also the first Las Vegas-based major professional sports franchise — intensified the connection between the club and the community.

"Hockey has been such an amazing experience for our entire city, especially considering the season and the timing of our first home games with the Oct. 1 tragedy," said Tanya Killeen, a former Winnipegger who works in Las Vegas as a business developer for a skin-care company. 

"It's been really electrifying to see how this has brought people together."

Unlike Neufeld, Killeen wore a Jets jersey for the first Vegas home game of the Jets-Golden Knights series. 

"It's really hard for me as a Jets fan," she said outside T-Mobile Arena. "Obviously, I'm just excited to have hockey in Vegas. I will always say my first love is the Jets, but I've been flirting very hard with the Knights."

Mike Neufeld went to the Save the Jets rally as a kid. Now a musician in Las Vegas, he primarily cheers for the Golden Knights. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

The Jets-Golden Knights series also has divided friends in Las Vegas.

Brent Fitz, an ex-Winnipeg musician best known for his work with Gene Simmons from Kiss, Vince Neil from Motley Crue and Slash from Guns N' Roses, is a lifelong Jets fan. Producer Kevin Churko, a Moose Jaw, Sask., producer who's worked with Ozzy Osbourne, Shania Twain and Five Finger Death Punch, was one of the first Las Vegans to purchase tickets to see the Golden Knights.

"I was thinking of all the American cities, I would not have expected here, so I was thrilled," Churko said about the arrival of the NHL in Las Vegas, where he owns a recording studio called the Hideout.

Growing up at the Trans-Canada Highway midway point between Winnipeg and Calgary, Churko said he never had a hockey team of his own as a kid.

The Golden Knights have become his hometown club.

"I think us Vegas residents have stood by the team, the entire history of the team," he said, with a nod to the recent appearance of the expansion franchise.

Fitz, who left Winnipeg the same year the original Jets moved to Phoenix, said he only supports Vegas when they are not playing Winnipeg.

He also said it's too easy to climb onto the Vegas bandwagon.

"Everyone can jump on board because you have nothing to be upset about," he said to Churko. "Us Jets fans have been supportive and passionate about our team all these years."

Since the Jets won their last World Hockey Association Avco Cup in 1979, Jets fans have endured the loss of beloved players when the club entered the NHL, a decade of 1980s domination by the Edmonton Oilers, the loss of the club altogether in 1996 and losing seasons after the Jets 2.0 arrived in 2011.

Fitz said he's never stopped being "an obsessed Jets fan," even when Winnipeg is facing his second-favourite squad. 

"This series now, I couldn't be more passionate about the Jets. I'm fierce," he said. "I know one of the teams that I enjoy will be going to the Stanley Cup final, but I am cheering Jets in my head and my heart."

Jets vs. Knights series poses dilemma for Canadians in Sin City

5 years ago
Duration 2:57
Winnipeg expats are struggling to reconcile their hometown hockey loyalties with their embrace of the Vegas Golden Knights.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.