Dennis Butler looked gloomy as he munched on a plate of cheese and commiserated with a handful of fellow Conservative Party supporters in a Kenora, Ont., hotel.
Butler’s candidate, Rod McKay, had just been trounced in the Ontario provincial election and the room took on the pall of a funeral. Then talked turned to the Winnipeg Jets.
“Oh yeah, we’re excited,” said Butler, his eyes widening at the thought of heading to Jets games in Winnipeg, about two hours down the highway. “I know people at work who bought season tickets and don’t even know if they can get the time off to go. There will be buses going, for sure.”
Although technically in Ontario, Kenora feels like part of Manitoba and the city has embraced the reborn NHL team just like almost every other community in the province. While the team’s co-owner, True North Sports & Entertainment, briefly toyed with naming the club the Manitoba Jets, not many people outside Winnipeg seem to mind that the provincial name wasn’t adopted.
“I think it would have been nice and people would have appreciated it,” said Morris Mott, a professor at Brandon University, which is on the western side of the province. “But it’s not a big deal.”
Mott, who played a couple of games with the Jets in the 1970s, said people in Brandon feel the club is just as much a part of their community as do folks in Winnipeg. “I know lots of people who are making arrangements to go to games,” he said.
He believes this version of the Jets has an even stronger provincial connection than when he played for the team. That’s mainly because of television. “You can watch just about all the Jets games on TV here. That didn’t happen when I played,” he said. “The whole world has changed.”
Many people in Brandon are also familiar with Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, who played junior hockey in the city.
It’s not just Manitoba towns. A group of fans in Saskatchewan have started a fan club and the Jets’ co-owner, Mark Chipman, said he recently received a call from the owner of the Calgary Flames saying Jets’ jerseys were outselling Flames’ apparel in the city.
Up in Churchill, Man., more than 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg on the shores of Hudson Bay, Mike Spence said the community has been overjoyed with the return of the team. One group left last week to attend the club’s season opener on Oct. 9 and Spence, the town’s mayor, is hoping he can get to a few games.
“We’re feeling great about it,” said Spence, who also runs the Seaport Hotel, which held a party for the team’s first regular-season game. “They are our team as well.”
Not having Manitoba in the name is not important, he added. What is important is the example it shows to young people in the North, particularly when they can see more of players such as Jordan Tootoo, the Nashville Predators forward who was born in Churchill and also played junior hockey in Brandon.
Spence grew up a Jets fan and he still has a giant plastic hand he bought at a game he attended in the 1970s. “I tell my daughter sometimes that she used to chew on the finger when she was a baby,” he said. There was a void, he added, when the team left for Phoenix in 1996. “Now it’s gone.”