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Winnipeg bracing for big party with Jets season opener approaching

WINNIPEG - The guests are starting to arrive and the party is finally set to begin.

After 15 long years for a city and four incredibly hectic months for a hockey organization, the Winnipeg Jets will officially be welcomed back to the NHL on Sunday afternoon when they open the regular season against the Montreal Canadiens.

That reality hit home for anxious players as they started welcoming friends and family into town for the weekend. Some of them were busy after Friday's practice trying to figure out if they'd secured enough tickets—goaltender Chris Mason was worried some of his crew might end up in a pub rather than MTS Centre—for the most highly anticipated sporting event in the city's history.

"It hasn't happened in 15 years for this city and this franchise," said forward Evander Kane. "Looking at Sunday, I think it's going to be a game where history's made. Guys are excited, the city's excited, I think hockey fans in general are excited.

"It's going to be a real special game."

He managed to work enough connections to secure 15 tickets and avoided using any external brokers, which are asking as much as $1,950 per ticket for entrance to the 15,004-seat arena.

"I probably could have a 100 people here," said Kane. "I couldn't get enough (tickets) so I had to turn some people down."

Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to justify his allotment. A story in the Winnipeg Free Press cited an insider who said he asked for 14 tickets, but Harper told reporters in Regina on Friday that he only had four—all of which he'd paid for himself.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and former Jets players Keith Tkachuk, Dale Hawerchuk and Thomas Steen are also expected to attend.

There was a hint of excitement in the air Friday afternoon. The Jets team store was crammed with shoppers that had purchased so much merchandise that some racks were literally left empty while team flags could be seen flying on cars all over the city's main drag, not to mention every fire truck in town.

Inside the arena, there was still some evidence of work being done in preparation for the opener. Hallways have already been painted with team colours while the Jets logo and slogan—"fuelled by passion"—were added to a remodelled press box.

"It's going to be a really unique atmosphere," said defenceman Ron Hainsey. "We all know it's going to be jammed for the forseeable future. All the people are excited. It's a smaller building so it's louder."

That was already on display during the pre-season, where fans started derisively chanting "Booooo-chez! Booooo-chez!"—directed at Carolina Hurricanes goalie Brian Boucher—only a couple minutes into a game with only pride on the line.

The toughest challenge for coach Claude Noel and his staff has been trying to keep the players from getting overanxious. To weather a challenging nine-day break between the exhibition season and Sunday's opener, he took the team rowing on the Red River earlier this week and had them play a two-period scrimmage Friday rather than practice.

"We'll see if it works," said Noel. "The purpose of managing the week was to get the results by Sunday. We're on track as far as I can see."

Everyone is eager to claim a piece of the Jets right now.

The Scotiabank branch at the intersection of Portage Ave. and Main St. boasts a massive sign proclaiming it the "Official Bank of the Winnipeg Jets." However, that didn't keep the TD branch next door from displaying a team logo on one its walls and having employees wearing retro sweaters on Friday.

The Jets are arguably the NHL's most talked about team—the Winnipeg Sun ran an 84-page preview section this week—and national media from outlets around North America have started arriving in the city to cover the opening game.

It promises to be a weekend Mark Scheifele never forgets. The 18-year-old was the first draft pick of the second generation Jets in June and will make his NHL debut Sunday.

He's been relying on an iPad application that plays soothing sounds to help him get to sleep at night and was looking forward to his mom, dad, brother and sister arriving Saturday.

"They booked their flight like a week ago once I signed," said Scheifele. "They're just so excited—I get a call from them every day just telling me more and more stuff."

There's no denying that every member of the organization will be dealing with extra distractions. However, they're trying to keep things in perspective as well.

"It's still hockey, there's still going to be three periods played at 20 minutes apiece," said Kane. "We're still going to have to execute and perform. In terms of the other stuff, it's definitely going to be a special night. It's the first game in the history of this organization and people are excited and I think the players are excited.

"We want to represent this organization well."

The reality of a challenging 82-game season will hit home soon enough. The Jets head on the road for games in Chicago and Phoenix next week and players know fans will quickly go from celebrating the franchise's return to fretting about the power play and penalty kill.

"I would assume (it'll happen) by Monday," said Hainsey.



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