It’s here, on the western outskirts of this sprawling city, that the first concrete – literally – hints appeared that something big might be happening in Winnipeg hockey.
A new 172,000-square-foot rink went up in the spring of 2010, featuring four ice surfaces, a state-of-the-art training facility, restaurant and concessions – a $27-million recreational complex that was built by True North Sports & Entertainment with nearly half the cost funded by the provincial and federal governments.
It seemed a tad extravagant for a city boasting only an American Hockey League team – the Moose – and when they didn’t name it the “Moose-plex” but the “MTS Iceplex,” people started to believe that maybe, just maybe, those persistent rumours of the NHL’s Jets returning to Winnipeg might be true.
All this week the new Jets have been arriving and skating, on their own, in preparation for the official training camp which opens here Saturday.
With the largest of the four rinks seating just 1,500 spectators, they figure to be swamped. After all, season tickets, which were capped at 13,000, sold out in a matter of seconds in early June. According to Mark Chipman of True North, the rush was so great to claim tickets over the Web that it was later calculated that they theoretically could have sold 248,000 season tickets – roughly 16 times the capacity of the downtown MTS Centre where the new Jets will play. When they set up a waiting list, it, too, exploded to a point where that list had to be capped at 8,000 – suggesting many fans will be long dead by the time they get to their seats.
The “new” Jets are actually last year’s Atlanta Thrashers, a team that played before empty seats and in such relative obscurity that even the Jets’ staff has trouble at times recognizing the players as they come and go around the Iceplex.
They are not an expansion team. They are, rather, a new logo and a new address.
“A fresh start for everybody,” is the way Kyle Wellwood put it Wednesday.
No one needs such a start more than Wellwood himself, a slight man with thin arms and the hands of a surgeon when he gets around the net – if he can get around the net. The former Leaf, former Canuck, former Continental Hockey Leaguer and former Shark has a one-year, $700,000 (U.S.) deal in Winnipeg and wants to make the most of this fresh opportunity.
So, too, do most of the old Thrashers.
“My game last year was up and down,” admits goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. But this year, he says, it will be different. “If the game is going to be 9-8 and we win, I’ll be happy. It doesn’t matter how you play if the team wins.”
Last year, the Thrashers played both ways, well and badly. They began the year wonderfully – almost certainly headed for the playoffs, where in their entire history they had never won a single game – and then, almost inexplicably, they crashed.
“At one point we won eight in a row,” says team captain Andrew Ladd. “Everything was going well. We were playing well and we kind of took a breath, and stopped, and we didn’t have that work ethic that you need to be successful.
“It was a tough thing.”
This determination to remedy that situation is what makes the “new” Jets so different from, say, the “new” Senators – the Ottawa team that returned to the NHL after a hiatus that went back almost six decades. None of the original Senators were on that reborn team, even if it sometimes appeared that way in the team’s wonderfully futile first season back.
While the original Jets left the NHL 15 years ago – relocated to become the Phoenix Coyotes – the new Jets see themselves as the Thrashers gone north in search of sellout crowds that will cheer them on to the heights they expect of themselves.
This is not the 1961 New York Mets, where manager Casey Stengel had to entertain the media by announcing he expected his top fielder would be sitting somewhere in the centre field stands.
This is not the 1992 Senators where the only ESPN highlight of the year to feature the team would be Andrew McBain – a former Jet – being tossed from a game in Chicago and promptly tumbling down the stairs into the dressing room.
“We are a young team,” Pavelec says, “and we are one year older.”
“We have a good young core here that we can build around,” Ladd adds. “We have big expectations because we should be advancing and getting better. All of our young guys should be taking that next step and all our older guys should be getting better, too.”
Last year’s Thrashers went 34-36-12 for 80 points, 13 points shy of the final playoff spot. Ladd thinks it is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that they can close that gap as the 2011-12 Jets.
“Every one of us wants it to happen,” he says.
“This isn’t an expansion team with a whole new roster. We’re familiar with each other. We’ve got some good pieces in place. We ourselves expect to make the playoffs.”
What is truly different, he adds, is what will be most noticeable once that puck is dropped Oct. 9 to launch their season: loud, knowledgeable and caring fans.
“Having that crowd won’t hurt,” he says. “Whenever you need that extra boost, that little extra adrenalin …”