WINNIPEG – There’s a good reason Manitoba Moose banners still hang above the ice at MTS Centre.
In the eyes of the man who convinced the NHL to come back to Winnipeg, the Jets team that takes the ice for Sunday’s highly anticipated opener is more of an extension of the American Hockey League franchise than the original Winnipeg Jets.
“When we acquired this team, we had 125 people working for (the Moose),” co-owner Mark Chipman said Saturday. “It’s now up to about 175, but those 125 people had a very deep sense of pride in what we had done for the 15 years prior. So, to us, this is the same organization with a different name.
“It’s not like we’re trying to distance ourselves from the past—we’re just trying to forge ahead as the reincarnation or the next step of what we’ve been doing.”
While it’s tempting to refer to Sunday afternoon’s Jets-Montreal Canadiens game as the rebirth of a NHL franchise, it’s not being treated like that within the organization.
Beloved former Jets players Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen and Keith Tkachuk will be in attendance, but they won’t be formally recognized as part of a special ceremony. On the ice, Evander Kane will be wearing No. 9 and Brett MacLean will be in No. 25—the only two numbers officially retired by the former Winnipeg Jets, for Bobby Hull and Steen, respectively.
MacLean was claimed off waivers earlier this week and didn’t put much thought into his selection.
“I wore it when I was younger,” he said. “To be honest, there wasn’t too many options and I was so shocked (about being claimed on waivers) that I just picked it. Then I kind of remembered the history of it.”
In many ways, the second version of the Jets is starting fresh this season.
The players have pretty much run out of adjectives to describe what it will be like to play in Winnipeg after being asked about it on a daily basis since the sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers was announced May 31. To a man, they were impressed by the small taste of it they got during pre-season.
Even coach Claude Noel, a hockey lifer, was caught off-guard by the emotion during the national anthem prior to the first exhibition game.
“It’s almost like 15 years of vented emotion—I don’t know if it’s anger or whatever—(was released),” he said. “As soon as the anthem started, everybody sang. It just gave you goosebumps, like everybody was singing. It almost brought tears to your eyes. It was beautiful.
“I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like out there (on Sunday).”
His 80-year-old mother Alice and two sisters will be among the crowd of 15,004 in the stands. The coach plans to do everything he can to soak in the atmosphere.
“I won’t be sitting missing any moments,” said Noel. “I’m walking out there for the warmup and I’ll be walking out there for the start of the game and I will smell the coffee, I will smell the roses, there’s no doubt.
“Life’s too short, I learned that a long time ago.”
There might not be a tougher ticket to get your hands on anywhere in the NHL this year.
After practising at MTS Centre on Saturday morning, some players were still making last minute plans on behalf of family and friends. Forward Kyle Wellwood even went to the trouble of ordering some protective gear so his six-month-old son Roman can witness the historical afternoon in person.
“We got headphones,” said Wellwood. “We had to have them shipped. We had them on this morning and I was yelling at him, and he couldn’t hear, but he was laughing.”
This moment has been a long time in the making for Chipman.
He was a central part of the group that made a last-ditch effort to try to save the original Jets in 1996 and later oversaw the building of the MTS Centre and the successful Moose franchise. While he always believed Winnipeg could support another NHL team if given the chance, he’s been shocked by the level of enthusiasm in the community over the past four months.
“Honestly I couldn’t have imagined the depth of the response,” said Chipman. “I couldn’t have. I mean it’s just extraordinary and it’s hard to get used to. It’s hard for me personally. People stop you in the street, you can’t pump your gas. You can’t, and it’s great.
“But it’s awkward sometimes too because I’m not used to it. I’m happy that people are really excited but I never would have known that people would be this excited.”
While many will wear the retro sweaters of the original Jets, more and more people are donning the new logo and colours. The team store continued to do brisk business on Saturday morning, with lines stretching out the door and shelves needing to be repeatedly restocked.
Starting with Sunday’s game, the Jets players hope to show fans that this is a new team with an identity that should be separated from the previous NHL squad that called the city home.
“Obviously, there’s some history here with the Jets before and obviously we’re the Jets again,” said defenceman Randy Jones. “But we have a different logo and it is a different organization, it’s a different setup. We do want to go out and build our own identity.
“It’s been 15 years. A lot can change in 15 years.”