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Connecting past to present makes Jets' Heritage Classic loss secondary in the long run

The record books will show that the Winnipeg Jets lost the Heritage Classic, but the weekend’s events only serve to help the franchise down the road.

When the NHL returned to Winnipeg, it wasn’t a given the organization would go to any great lengths to draw a connection between the former, long-departed Jets franchise of the 1990s and the league’s most recent foray into Manitoba’s capital. 

The fans, of course, were destined to chant, cheer and call for their former Jets, but True North Sports and Entertainment considered other monikers for the club. It wasn’t until the 2011 draft, more than one month after the team’s announced return, that the franchise unveiled that they would, indeed, be called the Jets. But even though both old and new share a name, the relationship between past and present has never been all that official. 

In fact, famed numbers from the WHA-era Jets have been worn by present-day players, the logo was modernized with a heavier Air Force influence than the original team’s marks and, overall, the team made very few nods to the past in its first five years on the prairies. That wasn’t without reason, though. Instead of honor a team that left a city brokenhearted, the organization instead paid tribute to and acknowledged the hard work that went into the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. 

It was rightful acknowledgment, too, because if it weren’t for the Moose, the new-era Jets would have never had the opportunity to fly. Over the Moose’s original 15-year run in the city, the franchise laid the groundwork for the NHL’s return to Winnipeg. The Moose had its beginnings in the old barn, the same Winnipeg Arena that hosted the WHA and original Jets, and developed a strong enough fan base to warrant a new, downtown arena and brought the excitement of pro hockey back to the city.

But this weekend signalled a shift — a change from honoring what the former Moose accomplished to paying tribute to what the original Jets mean to hockey in Winnipeg.

From the induction of the WHA’s ‘Hot Line’ of Ulf Nilsson, Anders Hedberg and Bobby Hull into the team’s hall of fame to the raucous cheers for the home team during an alumni game that featured players who hadn’t suited up in the city for more than two decades. Take the applause for Teemu Selanne, one of Jets 1.0’s most beloved stars, which eclipsed that for even Wayne Gretzky, the game’s greatest player. Heck, even the Jets’ original mascot, Benny, made an appearance for the festivities.

Moments like those during the Heritage Classic aren’ be a one-off, either. While it may not be as grand a stage, the Jets have their sights set on continuing to embrace the alumni. After his participation in the alumni game, Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, the Jets’ first-overall selection in 1981, said he and Jets owner Mark Chipman discussed the organization’s inclusion of former greats.

“Mark and I have talked at length about it, and we're moving forward with it,” Hawerchuk said. “I think for any great franchise, you should have a strong alumni. And I can see better days ahead here for the alumni in Winnipeg, for the Jets for sure.”

Even still, there are those who scoff at the connection and those who believe the two teams, though sharing a name, should carry unique histories. Of course, in the league record books, that will be the case. But after this weekend, it seems much more like the teams can rightfully share at least some semblance of a true historical connection, like the argument that the two teams should be talked about in the same breath carries more weight.

There’s no denying it will never be a truly shared history — the Jets who featured the likes of Hawerchuk and Selanne have their history attached to the Arizona Coyotes and current Jets such as Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Scheifele share a past with the Atlanta Thrashers — but like the present-day Jets keeping former Moose captain Mike Keane’s No. 11 hanging from the MTS Centre rafters, the importance of the individuals and the original team to the city’s hockey history is what matters most.

That’s exactly what the Heritage Classic, and all its events, proved. Despite the hometown Jets being downed by the Oilers 3-0, Winnipeg won in finding a way to connect its bygone teams to its existing one. 

“I have a picture in my head of yesterday's game and the ‘True North’ chant that came during the National Anthem,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “But I happened to be standing behind Mark Chipman…and what I will remember the most is wondering in my own head if he understands, and I'm sure he does — but he's such a humble man, I don't know that he does — the impact that he had on the community. I wondered if in the inaugural game of the Manitoba Moose years ago if (he knew) that hard work would come to this in a really short period of time.”

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