On the NHL schedule it’s game No. 360 and one of eight played Thursday night. But to people such as Paul Kuzina, this game means so much more.
It’s Winnipeg versus Phoenix. In Winnipeg. At the MTS Centre. For the first time.
“It’s going to be a pretty electric atmosphere,” said Kuzina, who works in commercial real estate and is a Jets season ticket holder. “I think there’s 15 years of pent-up emotion for a lot of people that’s going to let loose.”
He and a few hundred thousand other people around here haven’t let go of the fact that Phoenix was the place the old Jets fled to in 1996 when hockey know-it-alls said the NHL would never work in an isolated prairie city with a lousy economy. Hockey’s future, they said, was in the desert. Now Winnipeg has its NHL team back, transplanted from another hockey wasteland in the deep south, and Phoenix is the place with no team owner, no decent prospects and a struggling economy.
Schadenfreude? Kuzina was among the couple of thousand Winnipeggers who travelled to Phoenix in October when the Jets played there. He brought a banner, a bunch of friends and just about all the rage he could muster to let loose across the Sun Valley. “Even though we have our team back people still look at Phoenix as ‘that’s who we lost our original Jets to’,” he said.
Just ask Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov what it feels like to come to Winnipeg after dissing the city from afar. Bryzgalov infuriated Winnipeggers last spring when, as a member of the Coyotes, he suggested Winnipeg had little to offer and he wouldn’t want to move there. When the Flyers came to play the Jets a couple of weeks ago, Bryzgalov apologized profusely before the game and even agreed to take a tour of the city. It meant nothing. The boos, chants, heckling and cries of “Ilya” rained down constantly during the game. And he didn’t even play.
Now it’s Shane Doan’s turn. The Coyotes captain actually played for the Jets in 1996 just before the team moved to Phoenix, but that won’t spare him from the fans’ fury over comments he made last season about not wanting to leave Phoenix. “I never said I didn’t want to come here,” Doan tried to explain Wednesday after the Coyotes practised at the MTS Centre. “I said I wanted to stay in Phoenix in exactly the same way as if I’d been in Winnipeg for 15 years and someone told me I had to leave. I would have said, ‘Hey, this is where my family is from.’ ”
He knows that explanation won’t work. “Hey, it’s what makes sports fun when you have fans that can get into it,” he said with a smile. “Anybody that comes into this building, that is playing against them is the enemy and you understand that and love that.”
Coyotes coach Dave Tippett was less charitable. “Why would there be any booing?” he asked incredulously Wednesday. “I don’t understand that part of it. None of these players here were the ones that made the decision to leave.”
The Coyotes players have long got used to living with the uncertainty about the future of the franchise, which has dragged on for more than two years. At present the team is owned by the NHL while city officials search for a local buyer. If that doesn’t happen soon, the club could move. “We don’t even pretend to cope with it any more,” Coyotes defenceman Adrian Aucoin said referring to the constant ownership rumours. “The amount of times last year we heard ‘two weeks, two weeks, two weeks.’ Now we don’t even talk about it.”
For a team with so much disarray at the ownership level, the Coyotes have been remarkably strong at ice level. They arrive in Winnipeg tied for first place in the Pacific Division with a record of 13-7-3. The Jets have lost two in a row and are near the bottom of the Southeast Division at 9-11-4.
“It’s going to be a tough game for us,” said Jet defenceman Zach Bogosian. He relishes any extra help the crowd can offer including booing the Coyotes as much as possible. “It’s not going to hurt us. We are just going to have to make sure right off the bat we get [the crowd]into it.”
There are a few Winnipeggers ready to forgive and forget, sort of. “It’s just like another team coming here, personally,” said Carey Chartier, a season ticket holder. “We got a team,” he added. “And I think we got a better franchise than if Phoenix would have come here.”