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(Jacques Boissinot)
(Jacques Boissinot)

Former Jets happy for Winnipeg fans Add to ...

Keith Tkachuk was all over the map Tuesday, physically and emotionally,

For much of the day, he was in a car with his three kids and Winnipeg-born wife, driving from Missouri to a minor hockey tournament in Toronto while listening to radio coverage of the National Hockey League's return to Manitoba. Along the way, he is planning to stop in Buffalo to visit former Winnipeg Jets' teammate Teppo Numminen.

Now, Tkachuk joked, he and Numminen will have something fresh to talk about: buying season tickets to the NHL's newly-transplanted Winnipeg franchise.

"I'm sad for Atlanta (whose Thrashers are officially flying north) because I went through that but I'm happy for the people of Winnipeg," said the Jets' forward who played five years in Winnipeg and was a member of the 1995-96 team that moved to Phoenix. "That team never should have left in the first place."

Of all the former NHLers who played in Winnipeg and regaled in Tuesday's homecoming, few share the same deep-rooted connections as Tkachuk. Born in East Boston, Tkachuk was the Jets' first-round pick in the 1990 NHL entry draft. He ended up scoring 144 goals during his time in Winnipeg, became a fan favourite and captain and eventually met his wife there on a blind date.

For years, when their kids were younger, the Tkachuks spent every summer vacationing in Manitoba. Tkachuk also staged a golf tournament in Winnipeg for 10 years and raised more than $1-million for the Children's Hospital Foundation. Now he's planning to return as a rejuvenated hockey fan.

"There's a lot to be optimistic about," Tkachuk said. "The Canadian dollar (being on par with its U.S. equivalent); the team has two great owners … I know it'll be difficult for some (Atlanta) players but they've got to give it a chance. I think they'll enjoy it. The people are wonderful."

Winnipeg's detractors have always played the same cards: the place is too small, too unsophisticated and too damn cold in the winter. In previous times, it was an attitude fostered not just by rival fans and outside media, but by NHL executives and players. Dean Kennedy can attest to that.

When he and Buffalo Sabres' teammates Mike Hartman and Darrin Shannon were traded to Winnipeg in 1991, he said it was handled as if they were being sent to the NHL's version of Devil's Island.

"I was headed for (salary) arbitration. So was Hartman. Shannon was playing out his option. The message from the Sabres was, 'Sign for what we offer or we'll send you to the hell hole,'" explained Kennedy, now a rancher in Southern Alberta. "I was happy to go. My folks were 3 ½ hours away (n Redvers, Sask.). It was a very good place to play."

Playing in Winnipeg had its advantages. Being the biggest show in town meant having to meet certain expectations. The Jets were highly competitive at their peak, a close-knit group that staged epic battles with Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers. Winnipeg had future Hockey Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, defenceman Randy Carlyle, now the Anaheim Ducks' head coach, winger, centre Thomas Steen, now a Winnipeg city councilor, and winger Paul MacLean, now an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings.

For MacLean, going to Winnipeg in 1981 was admittedly a shock but one he quickly overcame.

"I got traded from St. Louis, which had just won the President's Trophy, to a team that had won nine games. I went from first to worst," recalled MacLean. "But the fans were so knowledgeable. That brought out the best in you."

Dave Babych felt the same way. The former Jets' defenceman, now a personnel consultant for the Vancouver Canucks, had some advice to those Thrashers harbouring any dour feelings over the move.

"You have to experience a city and have an open mind. You can be miserable anywhere," he said. "I was happy be in the NHL and playing in Winnipeg."

Tkachuk's memories of being a Jet still give him goose bumps. He remembers sitting in the dressing room before a home playoff game, unable to talk to his teammates because the fans were so loud. Then the players would step onto the ice and see everyone dressed in white. It is something Tkachuk hopes to see again, from a different vantage point.

"I want to be at the season opener. I'm just trying to figure out how to get my season tickets without being stuck on a phone for five hours."

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