It was a moment of small charm.
The Kenyan Boys Choir, on a tour of North American, had been invited to sing the anthems before this Saturday afternoon hockey match between the Chicago Blackhawks and the hometown Winnipeg Jets.
No one, perhaps, had warned the young Kenyans that when they came to the second verse of O Canada, the sellout crowd gathered in the MTS Centre would blast out “TRUE NORTH!” in acknowledgment of the group, True North Sports & Entertainment, that three seasons ago brought the Jets back to their rightful home.
The singers seemed momentarily stunned by the explosion of sound. Caught on the scoreboard screen, Jets goaltender Andrei Pavelec couldn’t hold a giggle in, which started the whole rink laughing.
Which, unfortunately, didn’t last for long.
The good feelings, however, did last one full period, leaving the struggling Jets even with the Stanley Cup champion Hawks – but there was not much to smile about following a decisive 5-1 victory by Chicago.
“There’s no rocket science when you play a team that can hurt you” said Jets coach Claude Noel when it was over. He refused to pile blame on the Winnipeg goaltending, as some were wont to do.
“We made mistakes before it got to our goalies.”
That there was more than the usual interest in this Saturday afternoon contest was understandable. It would be the first National Hockey League game in Winnipeg for hometown hero Jonathan Toews, captain of the Stanley-Cup champion Blackhawks. The starting lineup for Chicago included Toews, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, all with deep Winnipeg roots.
But there was more, as Sen. Mike Duffy might say.
Winnipeg’s star defenceman, Dustin Byfuglien had played for the ‘Hawks when they won the Cup in 2010. Jets general manager, Kevin Chevaldayoff, had learned his craft in the Blackhawks organization. And the exuberant MTS Centre crowd, another sellout, gave a warm standing ovation to Chicago goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin – the backup who would not even be playing this day. He had, however, once played for the Jets before the team re-located to Atlanta in the mid-1990s.
Historically, it could also be said that Winnipeg and Chicago were related, the Manitoba City expected a century ago to one day become the “Chicago” of Canada. “All roads lead to Winnipeg,” the Chicago Tribune had predicted back in 1912.
Well, history doesn’t always work out as predicted, yet a century on there remains kindred spirit between the two Midwest centres, and, for the most part, the champion ‘Hawks and the re-born Jets, who have yet to make the playoffs, play much the same game: speed first, finish second.
It just happens that the ‘Hawks have a lot more finish to them, coming into this game with an 8-2-3 record for 19 points and the Jets struggling through a moderate 5-7-2 record for 12 points.
The way the Jets started, however, they seemed the class of the ice. Using speed to great advantage, they outshot Chicago early and, five minutes in, went up 1-0 on a Tobias Enstrom shot from the point.
It is called a “shot,” but Enstrom, who chokes up on his overly-long checking stick when turning to offence, took a swing that looks more like he is scything grass than playing hockey – yet the puck found its way through a maze of players and behind Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford.
Another five minutes of quick hockey passed before Chicago tied the match on another point shot, this one by another Swede, Niklas Hjalmarsson, with his first of the season.
The Blackhawks went ahead early in the second period when, on a broken play in the Chicago end, Brandon Bollig cruised up the left wing and hammered a shot past the blocker of Pavelec.
Moments later it was 3-1 after the Jets again lost the puck while breaking into the opposition zone. A quick pass up and Sharp was able to walk in untouched, pulling Pavelec out of position and dropping the puck into the net as he glided into the right corner.
“The wind got out of our sails when they scored their third goal,” said Noel.
“You’ve just managed to take the air out of your building.”
“We got a good start to that second period,” said Chicago coach Joel Quenneville.
“The first period was pretty even.”
At 4-1, Nick Leddy scoring off yet another point drive, Pavelec was again pulled – only this time by Winnipeg coach Claude Noel – and replaced by backup Al Montoya.
“I’m not going to sit here and blame Pavelec,” said Noel. “Before it gets to him there’s sometimes breakdowns elsewhere.”
Montoya survived a third-period penalty shot by Patrick Kane that rang off the crossbar but was unlucky on an innocent-looking shot from the right boards by Ben Smith that somehow slipped in the short side.
The Blackhawks return home to play Calgary Flames Sunday and then Monday are off to the White House to meet the President.
Wednesday the Jets, who host Detroit Red Wings Monday, will travel to Chicago for a re-match.
Desperately hoping it isn’t also a repeat.
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