Hockey fans in Winnipeg seem to have forgiven Gary Bettman.
Once villified in the city after the original Winnipeg Jets left town, the NHL commissioner had his name chanted in the concourse of MTS Centre on Sunday afternoon while doing a radio interview before the second generation Jets played their first game against the Montreal Canadiens.
It was such an unusual occurrence he wasn't sure if they were actually showing their support for him.
“I thought the radio guy, his name was Gary (Lawless), I thought they were cheering for him,” Bettman said with a laugh.
The commissioner was often blamed for the league's decision to relocate the Jets to Phoenix in 1996. At that time, the team was struggling with attendance at the old Winnipeg Arena and couldn't find a new ownership group.
It's all water under the bridge now.
“I don't personalize these things,” said Bettman. “For people who understood what happened 15 years ago, while it may have been my face that was put on it, people know that I was not the least bit happy. In fact, we did everything possible not to move the club. ...
“It wasn't personal then and while frankly I'm happy to have been a part of the equation that restored the team, the credit goes to the people in Winnipeg without whom this wouldn't be happening.”
The biggest change was the emergence of owners David Thomson and Mark Chipman, who built the MTS Centre seven years ago.
They had a celebratory lunch Sunday with Bettman and other dignitaries, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Chipman joked that it was part of his normal game day routine.
“Oh I had my regular lunch with the prime minister, the commissioner, the ambassador (to the U.S.), the premier,” said Chipman. “No, honestly I did. It was quite a remarkable lunch. Not my regular lunch crew.
“It was very humbling to be in that company.”
While they dined, the fervour in the city continued to grow in anticipation of the game. Cars honked their horns as they drove past the arena while fans sporting face paint and Jets sweaters — both new and old — chanted and high-fived one another.
The large civic street party didn't surprise Bettman.
“Throughout those 15 years, we never doubted that there were great fans here,” said Bettman.
“It's terrific, it's exciting,” he added. “It shows you the passion that fans have for our sport, it shows you what Winnipeg as a community is like when there's a common cause to celebrate and support. It's very gratifying and it wasn't unexpected.”
Before leaving town, the commissioner joined in the celebration. He picked up two Jets sweaters for his grandkids.
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