Draped in white with a miniature Stanley Cup taped to the top of her head, Sheila Hathaway joined tens of thousands of revellers basking in the joy of the Winnipeg Jets’ return to the hockey playoffs on Tuesday night.
Clutching another larger replica of the Stanley Cup close to her chest, she confessed to being a bit overwhelmed by the excitement that is consuming the city.
The Jets beat the visiting Nashville Predators 7-4 on Tuesday night to take a 2-1 lead in the second-round, best-of-seven series.
Ms. Hathaway had spent 90 minutes to be certain she was appropriately attired for another whiteout in Winnipeg, the pep rally that precedes postseason games at Bell MTS Place.
“It is so exciting that I actually can’t contain myself,” Ms. Hathaway says. She has a plastic blue airplane affixed to her Jets sweater and beads glued onto her painted face. “I took a day off from work today because I knew I wouldn’t be productive.”
Three hours before the game started, streets outside the arena near the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street, where fans could later watch on giant outdoor video screens, were jammed.
At that same corner in 1972, Ben Hatskin, the team’s first owner, announced the historic signing of Bobby Hull, the first defection by an NHL star to a World Hockey Association club.
Sheldon Unrau and his daughter, Samantha, joined the throng outside before heading for the seats they have sat in all season. Samantha is only 20, but her dad remembers well the day in 1996 that the Jets abandoned Winnipeg for sunnier days in Phoenix.
“It hurt pretty bad,” Mr. Unrau says. “As time went on, it seemed hopeless.”
It took 15 years before the NHL granted Winnipeg a second chance and allowed the Atlanta Thrashers to relocate to Manitoba’s capital city. And now residents are giddy with their team’s success.
It is easy to understand the affection Winnipeggers have for their team, and the pandemonium that accompanies this run through the playoffs.
It is only the Jets’ second appearance in the postseason since Winnipeg regained its team in 2011, and it is the first time a Winnipeg team reached the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1987.
And everywhere, a sea of white, a tradition dating to the playoffs of 1987, when an advertising executive whose agency was employed by the team encouraged 15,000 people to come dressed in white. From that point on, it has helped differ the atmosphere from any other NHL home team.
Three Party Stuff stores in Winnipeg have been deluged with customers seeking white wigs, white top hats, white sunglasses and white makeup.
Jonathan Glass, owner of one of the outlets, says he has sold more than 1,000 beards at $10 each over the past six weeks to fans who want to look like Jets star Patrik Laine.
The 20-year-old Finnish winger salvaged his billy-goat whiskers even after he took a stick to the chin late in the regular season and needed stitches.
On Tuesday, hotel clerks and restaurant staff dressed in Jets sweaters. Whiteout lattes were poured at the café at the Delta, and ManiTrouba burgers were being served in honour of Jacob Trouba, a Jets defenceman.
It was more than just a heartbreak when they left.
“It was devastating from a business standpoint and from a cultural point of view,” Joe Daley says as he stands behind the counter in the sports memorabilia shop he operates across from the Red River. “When the Jets left, it was like, ‘Here we are, a prairie hick town, all over again.’
“People were talking about leaving. It was embarrassing.”
Mr. Daley is 75 and understands his hometown and its love for hockey better than most. He was a goalie for the Jets during their seven years in the WHA, took them to three league championships and was an inaugural inductee into the league’s hall of fame.
He played with Mr. Hull – “When I heard rumours he was going to come to Winnipeg, I said, ‘Yes, and pigs will fly’ ” – and against Wayne Gretzky, who was a skinny 17-year-old with the Indianapolis Racers.
Mr. Daley played parts of four seasons for three NHL teams before jumping to Winnipeg when the Jets were granted a franchise in the newly formed WHA.
He was 36 and retired when the WHA folded, but became a huge fan when the city was awarded an NHL franchise the following season along with Edmonton, Quebec City and Hartford.
The Jets have never reached the heights they did in the WHA, but are climbing ever so close now. They finished second in points this season only to the Predators, their second-round opponent.
“This is the most excited I have been over the Jets since I quit playing,” Mr. Daley says. “Fans are living a dream.”
The Jets finished the regular season with the NHL’s best home record at 32-7-2. They won their last nine games at Bell MTS Place, and all three home games in the first round against Minnesota.
Winnipeg’s arena is the smallest in the NHL with a seating capacity of 16,345 and likely the loudest.
“The chaos in our building creates a neat atmosphere,” Blake Wheeler, the Jets’ captain, says. “We love to play in front of our crowd.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it took 25 years for the NHL to grant Winnipeg a second chance for its hockey team. In fact, it was 15 years.
The Canadian Press