WINNIPEG – As the reborn Winnipeg Jets took to the ice Sunday in their season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, their fans painted the city white and blue as they came out by the thousands, whether or not they had tickets to the game.
Even a 5-1 loss failed to dampen their joy as they gave their new team a standing ovation.
“It’s pretty incredible,” said rising young star Mark Scheifele, the team’s leading scorer during the pre-season who was playing with the OHL’s Barrie Colts last season.
“To get a standing ovation when you lose it just shows that the fans are behind us regardless and we’ve just got to keep on working our hardest.”
“This is going to be a great place to play, the fans were exceptional all night,” agreed team captain Andrew Ladd.
“We were down 5-1 and the fans were still standing up and cheering.”
Jets fans partied before during and after the game, just happy to get an NHL team back after a 15-year forced separation.
“How do I feel? Ecstatic, the Jets are back,” said Jason Kendall as he stood outside with friends before the game.
“I’m going to stand right here for quite a while. I’m not lucky enough to get a ticket but I’m right here, screaming and yelling.”
Many fans painted their faces, carried banners and wore both old and new Winnipeg Jets’ hockey jerseys. They listened to music at a free stage at The Forks, a downtown gathering place at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
They packed downtown bars and restaurants around the MTS Centre.
Others, like Kendall, just stood outside the arena cheering when they felt like it. Some wore fancy dress. A complete wedding party timed their ceremony so they could make the game.
Winnipeg was hockey mad but in a good enough mood even to bury that hatchet when it came to league commissioner Gary Bettman, who many have blamed over the years for losing their team.
“One, we never doubted that there were great fans here and two, we were never pleased with the fact we were left with no choice that the club moved,” Bettman said as he addressed reporters before the game
Mark Chipman, whose True North Entertainment and Sports owns the team, joked it was a typical Sunday, he started it by noshing with the prime minister.
“I had my regular lunch with the prime minister, the ambassador, the premier,” he said.
“It’s not my regular lunch crew.”
The ambassador he was referring to is Gary Doer, the former NDP premier who helped put together the deal that saw the MTS Centre built and even gets some credit for getting Chipman and Toronto billionaire David Thomson together, the partnership that impressed the NHL enough to win a franchise. Doer is now Canada’s ambassador to the United States.
Chipman had a tough time putting his feelings into words at times.
“May 31 was a big day, this one is as well,” he said, referring to the day it was officially announced the Atlanta Thrashers were moving to Winnipeg
“I can’t even begin to tell you how humbling it is to be a part of the National Hockey League.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper showed up for the game and unveiled one of the two commemorative coins the Royal Canadian Mint is producing to mark the Winnipeg Jets’ return to the NHL.
The mint is issuing a 50-cent piece and a pure silver $20 dollar coin. The 50 cent coin is produced at the mint in Winnipeg and will sell for $14.95. The $20 limited edition silver coin goes for $94.95.
There will be 15,000 produced, almost exactly the seating capacity of the MTS Centre where the Jets play.
Montreal netminder Carey Price said scoring the first goal helped the team bounce back from their opening night 2-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They knew how much energy the Winnipeg fans would bring.
“We knew if they would have scored first they would probably have fed off that for the rest of the game.”
Note to readers: This is a corrected version. A previous story wrongly said it has been 16 years since the Jets left Winnipeg