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Winnipeg Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec keeps his eyes on the puck during the third period of their NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, British Columbia March 8, 2012. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)
Winnipeg Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec keeps his eyes on the puck during the third period of their NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver, British Columbia March 8, 2012. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)

Winnipeg businesses, psyche vulnerable Add to ...

As hockey fans across North America lament another NHL lockout and the possibility of a lost season, spare a thought for the folks in Winnipeg.

No city has embraced the NHL quite like the Manitoba capital, where passions built up for 16 years were finally unleashed with the return of the Winnipeg Jets in 2011. And now after a raucous first season in which the MTS Centre shook during home games and fan support grow so intense that roughly 500 people turned out in mid-July just to watch the Jets’ draft picks practis e, professional hockey could vanish once again.

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“Everyone’s disappointed of course,” said Jeremy Torrie, a Jets season-ticket holder. Torrie is putting on a brave face for now, saying he doesn’t blame the players for the lockout and he understands the “realty” of the NHL’s economics. “There’s no doubt fan support is 100 per cent behind the Jets but we also recognize the problems with the league in cities where the fans aren’t as hard core as we are,” he said Monday.

“After such an emotional high last year with the return of the Jets and the [Blue] Bombers in the Grey Cup, our sports cupboard is really bare this year,” Jets fan Harold Nachtigall added. “Truthfully it is really upsetting. Millionaires fighting with billionaires about money.”

A lengthy lockout will take its toll financially as well. Winnipeg is one of the smallest NHL markets and the city will feel the absence of its team perhaps more than any other place. The Jets brought new life to the city’s downtown core, filling up bars and restaurants in the blocks around the MTS Centre during games. Losing even a few games will hit many bottom lines and cost jobs.

“A lot of restaurants and bars are going to say, ‘I used to have five or six staff on a game night. Now because there’s no game, I may need one,” said Chuck Davidson of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce who also has Jets season tickets. The lockout “is concerning news and [the economic impact] really has more to do with how this is going to take.”

Just as troubling, Davidson added, is the effect a prolonged lockout will have on the city’s emotional state. “The biggest impact, and it can’t really be felt financially right now, is just what this is going to do to the psyche of Winnipeggers,” he said, noting that last season was more like a love affair with the team. “I think there is going to be some frustration. I think people are going to say, ‘We waited so long. Year 1 was unbelievable and we have such high expectations moving forward.’”

The club’s chief executive officer tried to offer some reassurances Monday. Jim Ludlow told reporters the Jets won’t be laying off staff during the lockout and plan to use the time to revamp the MTS Centre. “We are here for the long haul,” Ludlow told the Winnipeg Free Press.

While local anger is mounting over the lockout, few believe the bad feelings will remain once the team is back on the ice. “The enthusiasm for the Jets is way too strong,” said David Minuk, editor of the Illegal Curve, a local website and weekly radio program covering the Jets.“It would take something nuclear to really change any sort of attitude toward the Jets. People are just too happy with the team being back. In this city the Jets can do no wrong.”

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