You’ve got to love the cockiness.
A wall poster in the lower lobby of Bell MTS Place tells visitors you have just entered “The Heart of Canada and birthplace of the most intimidating playoff environment in the NHL.”
This, from a relocated NHL team that Thursday night won its first playoff game ever.
“Our winter may be behind us,” says another poster on a day that began with snow, “but a FURIOUS STORM is only about to begin.”
Friday night the Winnipeg Jets will play host to the Minnesota Wild in Game 2 of their opening-round series, with the Jets up one game to none courtesy of a late come-from-behind 3-2 victory that had fans screaming and honking their joy long into the night.
They had come out in force. The 16,345 in the stands had an almost perfect whiteout – two women even showing up in their wedding gowns – and thousands more wearing white clothes and wigs, and even a polar bear mask. while chanting “GO! JETS! GO!” in the streets surrounding the rink.
They are nothing if not believers. As a third poster in the lower lobby says, this is “A place where fierce winters have formed a resilient character in its people.”
Only once in the playoffs since the Atlanta Thrashers moved up to Winnipeg in 2011, never having won a playoff game until this week, and yet you would never know this franchise was anything but a total success. They scream “TRUE NORTH!” at full volume during the anthem in salute to the ownership that brought back the franchise the city lost in 1996. They roar with approval when the scoreboard shows the big smiling face of Len (Kroppy) Kropioski, the Second World War veteran who would drive all the way from Kenora, Ont., for each home game virtually until his passing in 2016 at the age of 98.
It is a city desperate to return to the glory days of the 1970s, when the first version of the Jets were part of the World Hockey Association and won three AVCO World Trophies – not Stanley Cups, pointedly – as league champions.
The lower lobby also has a history lesson in screens that depict moments from those halcyon days. The WHA challenging the NHL with blue pucks and big cheques – Bobby Hull accepting his unheard-of million-dollar payoff right on the corner of Portage and Main, the arrival of Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson in 1974 to form “The Hot Line,” Hull scoring his 1,000th professional goal as a Jet.
When the Jets came back in 2011, Nilsson, now back living in Stockholm, told me that “Hockey is more than a sport in places like Winnipeg. I loved my four years in the city.”
They lost the team and fans gathered at The Forks and wept. They finally got a new rink and the team back 15 years later and fans raced so fast to grab season tickets that the new organization’s computers crashed within minutes.
Shannon Sampert, an associate professor of political science at the University of Winnipeg, published an opinion piece on Thursday in the Winnipeg Free Press in which she correctly argues that, “There is a cultural need for Winnipeg to celebrate its hockey team. For Winnipeg, the need to prove we’re economically competitive enough to sustain a hockey franchise has been like a scar on our collective identity.”
That the Jets were deemed successful, despite missing the playoffs so often, was proof to Winnipeggers that they belonged in the hockey big time. When the Jets of 2017-18 put together a 114-point season that was second only to the Nashville Predators, they took it as proof that they can challenge for the ultimate hockey prize: the Stanley Cup.
In the Jets’ dressing room on Thursday after a morning practice, the confidence was oozing.
“No matter what the score is,” said centre Andrew Copp, “we can come back to win.”
“I just think we’re more confident in those type of games, those close games,” added Bryan Little, also a centre. “We’re confident that our offence can score goals when we need them to, especially if we’re down a goal. We all have that feeling on the bench that the game is still ours.”
“We don’t really have two lines that can score,” added forward Nikolaj Ehlers. “We have four.”
Ehlers’s speed during one third-period rush against the Wild on Wednesday night took away the collective breath of the 16,345. He did not, unfortunately, score on it.
“It’s exciting being the cause of all those ‘OHHHHS!’ he laughed, “but it ends with ’AWWWW…’”
It is the size and speed of this Jets team that allows for such confidence. So adept are centres such as Copp and Little and, especially, Adam Lowry at winning faceoffs, that the team has abandoned the usual strategy of dealing with an empty net at the other end – as was the case for more than two minutes against the Wild. Instead of lugging the puck up to centre before dumping it in to avoid icing, the Jets are told to shoot from anywhere. They might score, but if it’s icing, they’ll simply respond by winning the next faceoff.
It is a strategic gambit that can “burn you,” added head coach Paul Maurice, but with such skill at faceoffs he feels his team is better off with an icing call than with allowing a turnover in its own end that might lead to an opposition scoring opportunity.
The Jets did not get burned Wednesday but they will not be meeting the same Wild that let them come back in a flurry during the third period.
“I think we can play a lot better,” said Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau.
They will and so will the Jets, as early playoff nerves have settled and future games should be less like Wednesday’s chess-like, cautious first period and far more like the furious desperation both sides showed in the third.
It is guaranteed to be a grind.
“The Eastern Conference is like candy,” Maurice said. “The Western Conference is meat and potatoes.”