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For wandering Winnipeggers, a return from the wilderness Add to ...

The large and fiercely nostalgic Winnipeg diaspora erupted with joy Tuesday at the news that the city that never quite leaves you had won the return of its beloved Jets.

There's something about Winnipeg that generates extraordinary devotion among its departed citizens. Recently that devotion has generated a yearning for the glory days when Winnipeg was on the map of major league sports.

Ken Fenson, a former Jets vice-president now living in Houston, Texas, nearly leapt with happiness at the news that the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers will relocate to Winnipeg.

"I don't think there's a Winnipegger on the face of the earth who isn't walking around with a big smile today," Mr. Fenson said. "It is so thrilling. It is thrilling beyond words. I wish I could be there to feel this all again. We never should have lost them."

Fenson also paid tribute to the current NHL ownership group, True North Sports, for getting the deal done. Winnipeggers across the country and around the world will be rejoicing, he said.

For fans such as Gabriel Desjardins, a 34-year-old engineer living in Silicon Valley, the return of the franchise ends a decade and a half of watching hockey but having no team to support. He may not remember his own anniversary, he said, but he'll never forget the date of the first NHL game he saw with his father: Feb. 18, 1983, against the Boston Bruins.

"Emotionally, there's sort of an element of the diaspora. I've been a man without a team. It's the end of my wandering," Mr. Desjardins said.

Dave Lantz, a 39-year-old lawyer in Toronto, left Winnipeg the same year as the NHL team. He has no plans to move his family back this fall, but he's already called a friend to reserve two tickets for the team's 2011 home opener. He said he was glued to every development this spring as the deal inched closer to completion. He breathed a huge sigh of relief when Gary Bettman appeared in Winnipeg Tuesday to confirm that the NHL is back.

"For me it's part of my childhood. I have fond memories of my grandfather sitting in his office listening to the Jets broadcasts on the radio. He was always content to just listen on the radio. But I'll never forget the first time we took him to a Jets game at the arena and the look on his face, the noise when the Jets scored, the place was electric," he said. "The first thing he said was, 'OK, who's taking me to the next game?'"

Mr. Lantz has already told his own children they're not allowed to wear any Toronto Maple Leafs apparel. Now he has an alternative to offer. He just hopes the new owners don't abandon the Jets name, as has been rumoured.

For Nathan Jacobson, a Winnipeg-born businessman who now lives in Israel, the announcement brought back warm memories of the city's past - the entry into the old World Hockey Association, the signing of Bobby Hull to the sport's first million-dollar contract, the team's entry to the NHL and its rivalry with Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers. He received e-mails from around the world yesterday from former Winnipeggers excited about the team's return.

"Losing them was a major loss for Winnipeg," Mr. Jacobson said. "This is sort of a return from the wilderness."

He recalls doing business in Russia where people may have known little about Canada but they knew the Winnipeg Jets.

Will the team thrive financially? Mr. Desjardins, who also does hockey analysis, said the strength of the Canadian dollar makes an enormous difference to the viability of pro hockey, even if Winnipeg will have one of the smallest arenas in the league.

But selling hundred-dollar seats in Winnipeg, a city where bargain hunting is enshrined as a civic virtue, may not be easy.

"They've got to make it work. Being Winnipeggers, they're not used to paying $200 a ticket. Will it work in a discount city? I don't know," said Mr. Jacobson.

Either way the thousands of ex-Winnipeggers who still consider the city home once again have a team they can call their own.

"You never leave it. You never do," Mr. Fenson said.

Follow on Twitter: @FriesenJoe

 

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