WINNIPEG – They came by the hundreds, wearing Winnipeg Jets jerseys, caps and other paraphernalia, quenching a 15-year thirst and savouring sweet victory.
Some 3,000 hockey fans descended on a downtown public square Tuesday for the moment many in this hockey-mad city had been waiting for—the return of the National Hockey League.
As ownership chairman Mark Chipman announced the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to the Manitoba capital, the throng erupted in a deafening roar.
“It’s a great day for Winnipeg. It’s been a long time coming,” said Jeff Turbett, decked out in a white Jets jersey.
People stretched the brief announcement into an all-day party.
Fans sang along as a DJ played songs that fit the occasion—Tom Cochrane’s “Big League,” “The Hockey Song” by Stompin’ Tom Connors and Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.”
Through the morning and afternoon, dozens of fans played an impromptu game of street hockey in a nearby parking lot. Ten blocks away, there were so many people at the city’s renowned intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street that transit buses were rerouted to other streets.
“This puts us back on the map,” said Claudia Byczek, who sported a matching white Jets jersey and visor. “Today it’s like we’re turning a page and we’re going to start again and … show the rest of the NHL that we’re back.”
A feeling of optimism pervaded the city—the idea that this time, there will not be empty seats, there will be no financial difficulties and the team will stay for good.
There was also a feeling of vindication for many fans who felt robbed when the money-losing Jets packed up and moved to Phoenix in 1996.
“I think we’ll show everyone that we deserve a team, that we can support one,” said Brian Lambert, who opted for a blue Jets jersey.
That feeling of being wronged was evident when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman first appeared on the screen and the crowd booed. Some started chanting “Bettman sucks.”
Aside from that, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly celebratory.
Unlike 1996, Winnipeg has a new arena. The state-of-the-art MTS Centre is smack in the middle of downtown and at 15,015 seats, is much larger and more comfortable than the old Winnipeg Arena that sat near the airport.
There is also a salary-cap and a revenue-sharing arrangement in the league that didn’t exist in 1996. Add to that a strong Canadian dollar, which makes player salaries, which are paid in U.S. dollars, much more affordable, and fans feel the sky is now the limit.
“Everything has fallen into place,” Lambert said. “We’ve always been a great hockey city and we’re now getting a chance to prove it.”