WINNIPEG – NHL-starved hockey fans turned out by the thousands Saturday for an open practice of their new Winnipeg Jets.
Some wore the old Jets’ jerseys from the 1990s that have been consistently among the biggest sellers in the NHL catalogue. With the new ones still on back order, no one was holding that against them.
They crammed the practice facility on the edge of the city, filling the stands and crowding around the boards to watch and cheer the team, which plays its first NHL home exhibition game Tuesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
For many it may be their only chance to see the relocated Atlanta Thrashers in person. The Jets have sold out all but a handful of tickets they held back, and those have to be secured through a monthly draw.
“Eventually, hopefully, there’s tickets we can get … It’s going to be a challenge,” said Paul Meads, sitting in the stands and wearing his classic Winnipeg Jets jersey.
He laughed about it but said until then, he’s just waiting for his cable provider to negotiate a deal to show the Jets channel.
Meads was just 15 when the old Jets left for Phoenix where they were renamed the Coyotes. He has no doubt about the support the new Jets will get in their new home.
“You’ve seen the support already now. It’s going to grow stronger.”
Even the players were excited at the turnout, which included a large contingent of reporters and camera crews, getting their first look at the reborn Jets on the ice.
“I’m not used to practising in front of a crowd like that but it’s great, the fans are excited, we’re excited,” said defenceman Zach Bogosian, who signed a new two-year contract worth US$5 million just before camp began.
He didn’t want to slag the team’s former home base but said it does feel different.
“We had some good turnouts there the first day of training camp but I don’t think it would be anything like this … There’s a lot of people here and when they’re screaming ‘Go Jets Go’ it kind of gives you goose bumps.”
Swedish defenceman Tobias Enstrom is used to fan attention, although not so much in Atlanta perhaps.
“It feels good. I grew up in a town back home where everybody lives for hockey and it’s pretty much the same over here so I’m really excited for the year coming up,” he said.
Team captain Andrew Ladd said he felt the excitement as well.
“It felt going out there like we were about to play a game,” he said.
He said there was plenty of pent-up hockey passion in Winnipeg waiting to be released.
“It’s definitely a different scenario that I’ve ever been a part of.”