They cheered Gary Bettman.
There will be no clarification in tomorrow’s paper. They cheered the commissioner of the National Hockey League, even chanted his name – “Gary! Gary! Gary!” – as he strolled through the lobby of the downtown MTS Centre on his way to a radio interview.
The most vilified face in town for the 15 years that Winnipeg hockey fans were without NHL hockey became, somewhat surprisingly, a celebrated and saluted visitor as the reborn Jets opened their 2011-2012 regular season with, unfortunately, a crushing 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
All the same, hockey was back in town. The world was returning to the state it should be, at least in the minds of many Canadian hockey fans. The country that gave the frozen game to the world and then seemed to lose its grip now has a seventh NHL franchise to go with its Olympic gold for men and women. When professional hockey drafts the best 18-year-olds in the game these days, almost certainly they will be Canadian.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on hand for the game, called it “a historic day for Canadian hockey.”
“A great day for the city of Winnipeg,” added Mr. Bettman, “the province of Manitoba, the entire country of Canada.”
Nothing in this re-energized city has ever been so anticipated as this first game for the Jets since the struggling franchise – unable to find new owners, unable to get a new rink built – left town for Phoenix back in 1996.
The Winnipeg Jets were able to return on Oct. 9, 2011 because the NHL needed a new home for the foundering Atlanta Thrashers. The relocation of the Thrashers to Winnipeg was possible only when Mr. Bettman gave his nod of approval to True North Sports & Entertainment, a company formed by local businessman Mark Chipman and financed by Toronto billionaire David Thomson, who also counts The Globe and Mail among his many holdings.
From the moment the news leaked out in May, Winnipeg has been in a state of hockey hysteria. The 13,000 season tickets sold out in seconds. Waiting lists have had to be capped. Since training cap opened three weeks ago, interest in the team has been overwhelming, all but crushing what limited interest an Oct. 4 provincial election could hold.
Fans began gathering early in the day down by the historic Forks at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers where the game was broadcast on giant screens for those many thousands unable to gain a ticket to the event. They wore Jets gear – both new and pre-1996 – and trucks and cars, even a police car, trailed Jets and Canadian flags. A large Jets flag flew from the sky-high crane working high over the nearby Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
In the downtown MTS Centre that True North built, early fans unfurled a huge banner screaming: “STAY JETS STAY!”
They stood and cheered the warm-ups, the player introductions and drowned out the band and anthem singers during O Canada when, 15,004 strong, they roared out “TRUE NORTH” in tribute to Mr. Chipman’s successful 15-year campaign to bring the Jets home.
It was a sentiment that permeated even the visiting team. “Having the team is a lift for Winnipeg,” said Canadien defenceman Josh Gorges, who grew up in Kelowna, B.C., “but it’s a lift for the whole country.”
“It’s reflective of a deep-set Canadian feeling,” added Montreal assistant coach Perry Pearn, who happened to be an assistant coach in Winnipeg during its final game in 1996.
“Hockey is our game. It should be in Canada.”
Mr. Pearn’s belief is widely shared, but wholly embraced in Quebec City, where another NHL team, the Nordiques, was lost in the difficult mid-1990s. Winnipeg is no longer the Winnipeg of 1996 but is today a re-energized, vibrant city brimming with new confidence – the team both a cause and a reflection of that.
Quebec City, with a new hockey facility, might well be the next site for relocating one of the NHL’s struggling southern franchises – perhaps even, ironically, the Phoenix Coyotes – but Mr. Bettman refused to be involved in any talk that might “raise expectations.”
That said, the return of hockey to Winnipeg has been of some comfort to a hockey nation that, only a decade ago, was fearful that a shrinking dollar and ballooning payrolls would eventually lead to more franchises lost in such cities as Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton. The seven Canadian teams, however, are today the healthy heart of the 30-team league.
No hearts, however, beat as loudly as those on hand this Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg. When Nik Antropov scored the team’s first goal at 2:27 of the third period – an “ugly” goal, in hockey terms – it caused a roar that all but made the Red and Assiniboine reverse flow.
But one goal looks paltry against five, several of the Montreal goals coming off bad Winnipeg plays. “We gave up some free ‘pizzas’ in the middle of the ice,” said a disappointed Winnipeg coach Claude Noel.
Even so, the crowd stood and cheered at the end almost as loudly as at the start.
“Incredible,” said 18-year-old Jets rookie Mark Sheifele, who played last season with the Barrie Colts junior team. “In Barrie, when we’d lose, people would be leaving halfway through the second period.
“It just shows that we’re going to have fans behind us regardless.”
Well, for a while, anyway.…