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Tyler Macfarlane, Cody Laschyn and Norman Lavallee celebrate prior to NHL action between the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets in Winnipeg on Saturday, January 19, 2013. (JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Tyler Macfarlane, Cody Laschyn and Norman Lavallee celebrate prior to NHL action between the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets in Winnipeg on Saturday, January 19, 2013. (JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Roy MacGregor

Winnipeg’s honeymoon with Jets gets a little frosty Add to ...

‘Hostile Manitoba.”

The caller is venting, as have a half dozen before and would several dozen more already on hold or just dialling in to the Winnipeg Jets postgame show on Saturday evening.

This one wants the provincial licence plate changed: Strike “Friendly” and insert “Hostile” to better reflect the feel-bad concerns of Saturday evening that were drowning out the feel-good sentiments of the afternoon as the Jets held their home opener against the Ottawa Senators.

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It was a game so bad that Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean diplomatically described it as “a dog’s breakfast.”

Jets forward Blake Wheeler was less diplomatic, accurately describing his team’s 4-1 loss as “ugly.”

Then the fans spoke up. In the afternoon they had arrived at the MTS Centre two hours early to line up in -26 windchill and swirling snow gusts. They came in painted faces and replica jerseys and carried Thundersticks and sang and danced and cheered with sheer delight that the hometown heroes were finally back on the ice and winter could be put back in its proper place.

In the evening, they called in to the radio talk show. Someone wanted an “APB” put out on forward Kyle Wellwood. Another wanted one put out on centre Bryan Little. Both had been invisible, though they were hardly alone among the Jets in turning in weak performances.

The odd fan called for calm, saying it was but one game out of 48, saying the team – the Atlanta Thrashers until fall 2011, when they relocated to Winnipeg – is in a rebuilding phase that will likely take five years. They have good draft picks coming up – six in the first three rounds this June – and it is going to take time.

But other callers were having none of it. They didn’t like the forwards, they didn’t like the defence, they didn’t like the goalie. One caller said he’d wasted $200 on tickets to the home opener.

“The only good thing about the night,” said another, “was the half-price beer.”

Out-of-town listeners dared wonder – shudder, cringe – if the honeymoon was over.

To those who have closely watched the triumphant return of the Jets to Winnipeg, such a possibility seemed nothing less than shocking. This, after all, is the city that waited patiently for a second chance at the NHL. It took 15 years and some smart and sophisticated ownership by True North Sports & Entertainment to pull it off, but they did, and Winnipeg spent a delirious first year cheering their new heroes in what was soon described as “the loudest building in the NHL.”

Given that the MTS Centre seats only 15,004, tickets were at a premium from the very first. They set a goal of selling 13,000 season tickets and the requests were so heavy it crashed the computers. All 13,000 were snapped up in minutes. They then established a waiting list and had to cut it off at 8,000 with thousands more wanting on.

The Jets would never again be lost. The honeymoon, it was said, would last a good five years.

But not so fast. Saturday afternoon the Jets laid a stinker in front of these rabid fans. It seemed but a single Jets player, Dustin Byfuglien, was even aware the lockout was over. To be fairer to the Jets, however, it needs to be pointed out that the Senators were also rusty, sloppy and fatigued by the third period, as might be expected in a season that had a four-month delay. This game was roughly the quality of a preseason match.

If there was a difference maker, it was Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson, who let in the first goal of the game, a point blast from Byfuglien on the power play, but played superbly from then on.

Most importantly, it is both the first game and but one game. One game does not a season make.

However, in a truncated 48-game season, one game can a season break, especially if league parity produces a final stretch where, as has been happening in recent years, there is a mad scramble for that final playoff spot in each conference.

Such a compressed timetable makes panic a player. If it reared its head in Winnipeg Saturday, it was no different in places like Detroit (downed 6-0 by the St. Louis Blues Saturday), Washington (beaten 6-3 by the Tampa Bay Lightning), Vancouver (whipped 7-3 by the Anaheim Ducks) and likely a few other places where early expectations plunged to early concerns.

No matter what becomes of the 2013 season, it will be a roller-coaster ride like never before seen. Particularly with a new panic button – social media – in play as much for the regular season as it was for the lockout.

Need proof? All that has to happen in Winnipeg is that things turn around for the Jets Monday night in Boston or Tuesday night in Washington.

And the Jets will find themselves right back in “Friendly Manitoba.”

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