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Hockey fever comes early in Winnipeg Add to ...

Sept. 17, 2011 – and Game Seven of the 2011-2012 Stanley Cup Final is about to begin.

It is hard to adequately describe this topsy-turvy world of Winnipeg hockey.

Had they only added tailgate parties, it would have to have been breakfast on the grill, as they began filling up the parking lots shortly after dawn.

Puck drop at 9:04 a.m.

There was security on hand, including a van of stand-by police parked slightly off-site.

Cars whistled by, their Winnipeg Jets flags snapping in a brisk fall breeze. Out on the western end of Portage Avenue, the honking has nothing to do with migrating geese.

But everything to do with the return of the Jets, finally, big Nikolai Antropov the first Jet to step back onto Winnipeg ice in 15 years.

The cheer was deafening….for a practice.

They cheered the arrival of every player, they cheered the coaches, they cheered the first goal, they cheered the fancy plays and, in the end, the players gathered at centre ice and raised their sticks in an emotional salute to the more than 1,000 fans who jammed the Iceplex rink.

For a…practice?

But that is the state of hockey hunger in Winnipeg. The fans reacted as if they had, indeed, been sitting in the stands these past 15 years just counting the seconds until they could cheer again.

There was no Teemu Selanne to cheer for now. No Keith Tkachuk. No Thomas Steen. No Dale Hawerchuk.

Some of these players were named Akim Aliu and Zachary Yuen and Austen Brassard and Arturs Kulda – but it mattered not a whit. They were wearing the uniform, however new, of the Winnipeg Jets.

And that was what mattered.

“We’re not used to practising in front of a crowd like that,” said young defenceman Zach Bogosian, who had to carefully spell out his name to a television reporter who had obviously never heard of the former first-round draft pick.

“It was awesome,” said team captain Andrew Ladd.

“Most players don’t look forward to training camp – but this was fun.”

Sunday the camp will move from the MTS Iceplex in the outskirts of downtown to the MTS Centre where the Jets will play this season.

Monday they will practice and scrimmage again.

Tuesday they will play their first at-home exhibition match against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Given what was on display for a boring first practice, whoever scores that first re-born Jets goal might want to wear a pair of those airplane earplugs under his helmet.

And as for the first real goal of the 2011-2012 season…..

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