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Carrie and Joshua Kulbisky at a Winnipeg Jets Whiteout Party in Winnipeg on April 21.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

Draped in about a hundred strands of white crêpe-paper that formed a wig on his head, a shirt on his torso and trousers trailing behind his toes, Shane Luff joined thousands of revellers basking in the glee of the Winnipeg Jets’ return to the Stanley Cup playoffs on Sunday.

“I’m here for the biggest party of the year,” said the 22-year-old, attired to look like a piñata, using recycled material for his homemade outfit. “It’s a total whiteout.”

The Colorado Avalanche were in Winnipeg to play the Jets in the first game of their best-of-seven series. Winnipeg won 7-6. Hours ahead of the game, all of downtown was jammed.

The City of Winnipeg closed several roads and rerouted traffic, including transit, to allow for the roaring parties. The Millennium Library, which closed early to accommodate the crowds on the streets, described the gatherings on its website as a “special event.”

Watching their favourite hockey players on giant screens at the intersection of Portage Avenue and Donald Street, fans waved towels, threw popcorn, candy and beer in the air, many tearing up with each goal, screaming to the top of their lungs: “Go Jets Go!” A giant red truck, parked in the area, with two flags showing off the team’s logo on both of its front doors, blared its horn repeatedly.

Nearby, the separate Party in the Plaza at the True North Square on Carlton Street entertained hundreds of others with DJs and live music. Bars and pubs were packed across the Prairie city. The Royal Canadian Air Force flew fighter jets over the Canada Life Centre, facing the euphoric gatherings.

Even the Jets’ mascot, Mick E. Moose, couldn’t hold his jubilation. The anthropomorphic moose, donning a jersey, didn’t want to use his words. (His identity has been a secret since he was tapped to hold the important position as team mascot in 2011, though his hard work in Winnipeg is well known.)

But when asked how excited he was, moments after he performed on stage to pump up the crowd at the whiteout party, Mick E. Moose pointed to the loud fans next to him, as one of them – Larry Giesbrecht – ran up to embrace the mascot with a hug.

All 5,000 tickets for the whiteout party on the sunny Sunday sold out within an hour of going on sale earlier in the snowy week, according to True North Sports + Entertainment, the company that owns the Jets. Game 2 tickets for Tuesday were also sold out early.

Kevin Donnelly, True North’s senior vice-president of venues and entertainment, called these parties “legendary.” He said their affordability allows for “a different segment of our audience to participate in the games. At $10, these are just for everybody.”

These whiteout events in Winnipeg are the envy of other teams in the league, which frequently reach out to True North to ask for advice about how they can also create the “same kind of controlled mayhem” in their cities,” Donnelly said. “Not every market can pull them off.”

He said there was “tremendous resistance” to them, years ago, when they were first held, shortly after the Jets returned to the city following a 15-year hiatus from the NHL.

“But now, we’ve been embraced at every level,” Donnelly said, pointing to Holy Trinity Anglican Church on the street with a joyful shrill, then adding: “I mean I even saw people coming out of Sunday service wearing jerseys.”

Inside the arena, nerves hung in the air. Caryma Jabber and her husband said they couldn’t dare to leave their seats during the break after the first period of the game, which tied the Jets and Avalanche 3-3. “He practically begged me to go the washroom – I just didn’t want to miss a thing,” she said.

Ahead of Sunday, Winnipeg Jets co-owner Mark Chipman had been worried about dwindling attendance for home games. He told The Globe and Mail last week that True North has been employing Hail Mary strategies over the past few months to bring people back to buying tickets, which local fans complained had become too costly. “Dips in discretionary spending. Inflation hitting. The bubble really burst on us,” Chipman said.

On game day, all that work paid off.

As the puck dropped, it was impossible to spot an empty seat. Jets fans were lined from the upper-most corners of the nosebleed sections to the stands closest to the ice, the signature colours on their jerseys appearing as a sea of blue, red and white. True North later confirmed the maximum capacity of the arena – 15,225 – was reached.

The Jets have advanced past the first round on just two occasions since their comeback to the city in 2011. But the team not only had home-ice advantage against the 2022 champion Avalanche, it outperformed expectations this season.

Winnipeg won all three regular-season games against Colorado by a 17-4 margin. The Jets also won the last eight regular-season games and finished second in the Central Division, only three points behind the leading Dallas Stars, which finished first in the Western Conference.

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