It seems as though the whole city of Winnipeg is celebrating this weekend. On Saturday, alumni from the Jets will play for fun and bragging rights against their old rivals from the Edmonton Oilers. On Sunday, teams from both cities will compete in the annual NHL Heritage Classic. The Blue Bombers' 33,000-seat football stadium is sold out for each, and tickets for events leading up to the games this week were gone long in advance.
It was a pilgrimage for the thousands who poured into the MTS Centre on a rainy, chill-to-the bone morning on Friday to watch middle-aged men skate during light-hearted practice sessions. Rekindling memories, fans wore vintage jackets, and Teemu Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk sweaters, and delighted as guys well past their prime tugged at their heartstrings from the ice.
They roared when Selanne took a hard fall, not a single strand of his perfect hair out of place. They cheered as Bob Essensa, now the Boston Bruins' goaltending coach, lunged to make a nifty glove save. They laughed when, at the end, fond heroes from the past got down on their somewhat ample bellies and did push-ups before rising and saluting them with their sticks one last time.
"All of the heritage here and all of the memories probably inspired us to go five minutes longer," said Hawerchuk, a Hall of Famer who scored 379 of his 518 regular-season goals with the Jets. "We did five push-ups and I tried to get them to do 10, but was overruled."
Hawerchuk is 53 and the coach of the OHL's Barrie Colts now, and was appointed captain of the Jets' old-timers. The NHL's coveted outdoor game is being staged in one of Canada's most hockey-rabid and grateful cities, a place that suffered the heartbreak of once losing its team only to get one back six years ago. The Jets have one of the league's most prized rookies in Patrik Laine, and the club's owners are spearheading a downtown redevelopment.
It bears resemblance to what is going on in a fellow NHL city to the west, and it is no coincidence that the Jets invited the Oilers to join them in Sunday's big showcase.
They were rivals first in the World Hockey Association, and then became bitter opponents beginning in 1979 in the NHL.
"I think back to the 1980s, and what a powerhouse they were the whole time," Hawerchuk said. "Life changes and I've been out of the game for a while, and when I look back it was a privilege to play against them.
"I think for everybody this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It's a celebration of hockey in the Prairies, featuring two Prairie towns. How good is that?"
Jets remained a source of pride
There is a signed photo on the wall in Mark Chipman's office in downtown Winnipeg, a large print of Bobby Orr in flight after scoring the famous overtime goal that won the 1970 Stanley Cup for the Bruins.
The Boston defenceman was Chipman's favourite player as a kid – "My childhood hero," he said – and sent a copy of the picture to him after it was announced in May, 2011 that the Jets were returning to Winnipeg after an absence of 15 years.
"To my friend, Mark, congratulations on your big win," Orr wrote.
Chipman was 10 when the Bruins swept the Blues to win their first NHL championship in nearly three decades, and he was a gangly 12-year-old when the WHA was established in 1972 with the Jets as one of the league's founding members. He and David Thomson, whose family owns The Globe and Mail among other entities, are the biggest shareholders of privately held True North Sports and Entertainment, which now owns the Jets.
Chipman spent countless hours watching the Jets in his youth, and they remained a source of pride when he attended the University of North Dakota on a football scholarship and earned degrees in economics and law.
"It was a badge of honour then to say you were from Winnipeg," Chipman recalled while seated at a table with a window behind him that overlooks a $400-million development called True North Square, which will become a jewel in the downtown core. "It was a big deal to say that we were an NHL city."
In 1995, when it was announced that the Jets were being relocated to Phoenix, Chipman was a principal in a group called The Spirit of Manitoba, which failed in a last-ditch effort to save the team. After graduating university, he spent 10 years in Florida as a criminal prosecutor before returning home to join his family's business.
"I was very involved in the process to keep the original Jets in Winnipeg," he said. He is an affable Prairie boy and a beer-league hockey player and as such, without pretenses. "I had a front-row seat and can honestly say it wasn't our fault. The city was starting to regenerate, but the economics of the league were going completely out of control.
"Losing the team only served to stiffen our resolve."
Almost immediately after the Jets left, Chipman began working with partners to lure a minor-league team to Winnipeg and settled on the Minnesota Moose, a failing franchise in the International Hockey League.
"We figured our best chance of getting back in the game was keeping hockey alive, and we invested in the next-best league available," he said.
Within three years, Chipman and associates established True North Sports and Entertainment, and began making plans to build a downtown arena. Merger talks between the IHL and the American Hockey League brought Chipman into contact with Gary Bettman, with whom he became acquainted during those painful days when the Jets were on their last legs.
In 2002, Chipman and a friend drove 2,100 kilometres to take in hockey games at the Salt Lake City Olympics, and bumped into Bettman while walking on the concourse. Chipman used the opportunity to catch the NHL commissioner up on Winnipeg's arena plans, and when they parted company a few days later each promised to keep the other apprised of any developments.
"He extended a great deal of hospitality to me that week and didn't have to," Chipman said. "I was a minor-league guy."
The $130-million MTS Centre opened in November, 2004, and served as the home rink of the then-AHL Moose. In 2007, Chipman was invited to New York to make a presentation to the NHL board of governors, and over the next several years had discussions with NHL teams seeking greener pastures. They came within an eyelash of landing the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009, when the city of Glendale, Ariz., came up with emergency funding 10 minutes before the final deadline.
"We had chairs set up on the floor of the arena for the press conference announcing we had purchased the team," said Chipman, who is now the chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment and governor of the Jets. "We knew there was a chance that Glendale could come through, and they did. In retrospect, that was a blessing because it gave us another year to prepare for an NHL team."
By then, Bettman had indicated that Winnipeg would be rewarded, and on May 31, 2011, Chipman officially announced that True North had purchased the Atlanta Thrashers for $170-million (U.S.), and were moving them to Manitoba.
For more than a year, Chipman had been negotiating with the NHL, and kept it a secret from all but a few of his closest friends.
"It didn't make any sense to get people here all revved up when it was just a possibility," he says. "Through the process, the three most important things I learned were that we had to have a building, we had to gain the NHL's trust, and we had to keep our head down and mouth shut."
The Thrashers-turned-Jets made their Winnipeg debut at the start of the 2011 season and were immediately embraced by the city's hockey-mad fans. They reached the playoffs for the first time at the end of the 2014-15 season, but lost more games than they won last year.
They are 2-2 heading into Sunday's meeting against the Oilers, and are coming off a victory on Wednesday in which they trailed the Toronto Maple Leafs by four goals. Laine scored the first three goals of his career that night, and he is surrounded by a nucleus of good young players.
"We have had a plan since Day 1, and that was to build a team and we have done that with our six first-round draft picks," Chipman said. "We bought a team but we were able to buy it for a reason. Most of the draft picks and prospects had been traded away, so we had to create our own.
"It was great the year we made the playoffs, but we are trying to build a team that can be there every year. We know a slow and steady pace will get us in a position to win the race."
During the Jets' first season, Chipman asked Bettman if Winnipeg could play host to the Heritage Classic, which has become one of the NHL's marquee events since its inception on a frigid day in Edmonton in November, 2003. Chipman recalls watching that first outdoor game on TV, and marvelling at the 57,000 fans who endured minus 30C temperatures.
Upon landing this game, he immediately invited the Oilers to share it with them.
"We have an incredible history together," he said. "We are both Prairie cities and hard-working cities full of great hockey fans. They became the obvious choice of who would celebrate our heritage with. A long friendship between us has developed over the years."
There is joy in the air
This weekend is not a defining point in Winnipeg. It is a redefining point, actually. It's a time for the city to celebrate the Jets and to show hockey fans everywhere what has been achieved.
The past is not forgotten, but the franchise's story no longer reads like a sad country song. There is joy in the air, and a bright future. Construction cranes tower over the new downtown development, which sits on a piece of land surrounded by the Delta Hotel, the RBC Convention Centre, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Jets' home rink.
Earlier this week, Bobby Hull, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg were inducted into a newly established Jets Hall of Fame. On Friday night, a sellout crowd filled the convention centre for a gala dinner where as part of the program Ron MacLean interviewed stars from past teams, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Hawerchuck included.
Earlier in the day, MacLean recalled the scene at the Forks, a green space in downtown Winnipeg at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers where 35,000 fans showed up for a save-the-Jets rally in 1995. He remembered their gut-wrenching last game in 1996, a playoff loss to the Detroit Red Wings, and talked about Chipman and his resolve.
"He is a guy who wanted to keep the Jets here all along and worked at it," MacLean said. "Trying to resurrect them from nothing would have nearly been impossible."
And then, "I honestly think your love for the game supersedes the NHL."
Fans filled the arena and cheered the Jets of old on Friday morning.
In the dressing room afterward, Hawerchuk sat in front of his stall soaking it all in. At one point during the practice, he tried to draw up a play on a chalkboard beside the ice.
"The same old guys screwed it up," he said, laughing. "Some things never change."
He admitted that his body ached from using muscles he had not used in years.
"I am on the ice as a coach, but I can feel in my legs and lungs," he said. "As a coach, I am not pushing hard out there every time."
Across the room, Brian Mullen was undressing at his locker. He had a scar on his sternum from open-heart surgery, and a cold can of Kokanee waiting in his stall.
"When the team left here, it was like a punch in the gut," said Mullen, 54, who joined the Jets in 1980 as a seventh-round draft pick and played for them in five of his 11 NHL seasons. "I knew what the Jets meant to people here and it was hard to take.
"This is a special weekend here, just a huge event.
"I didn't really realize what a big deal it was until I got in last night. Somebody in the lobby asked for my autograph. I was surprised anyone knew me."
Chipman, meanwhile, is looking forward to taking these next two days in.
"I struggle to articulate what it all means to me," he said. "I am blessed beyond my understanding to be this close to the game I love, and to bring this piece of history together for a few days.
"It is our community, and the city of Winnipeg that will be on display at centre ice on Sunday rather than our team and Edmonton. This is a chance for our community and organization to say we are really back."