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Winnipeg in hockey heaven after heartbreak

| Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — The initials S.O.J. were scrawled all across this prairie metropolis in the winter of 1996. On handmade signs adorning downtown storefronts. On a museum mosaic drawn by children. On telephone poles, etched by the hands of a sad, angry, even frightened citizenry.

Save Our Jets.

They would not be saved. On a frigid April night at rickety old Winnipeg Arena, late in what would be a playoff loss to Detroit, the crowd realized this was it. The franchise that had been home to Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk and a baby-faced Teemu Selanne was leaving for Phoenix. No public funds could be secured for a new arena, there was no salary cap, the Canadian dollar was weak, and the NHL was all too eager to try out the United States' fifth-largest market.

So, the fans stood and roared. And this wasn't a cheer. It was a deafening, sickening roar that lasted for the final 15 minutes of action, then a half-hour beyond the final horn. The Jets' players returned from their locker room — spontaneously — to give the sweaters off their backs. Tears flowed, on and off the ice.

"Imagine the Steelers leaving Pittsburgh," recalled Randy Gilhen, a center with the Penguins' championship team in 1991 and proud, vocal Winnipeg native. "That's how it felt. Hockey is everything to Canadians and to Manitobans. Our hearts were being ripped out."

Arron Asham, the Penguins' winger born in nearby Portage la Prairie, was 18 at the time.

"I went to so many games there," Asham said. "To see that, it was heartbreaking."

Without experiencing that, it's impossible to understand the joy, the sense of triumph that came with the Atlanta Thrashers relocating here after 11 mostly failed seasons in Georgia.

In the hours before the Penguins lost to the Jets, 2-1, inside the modern, compact MTS Centre, the emotions were nearly as visible and audible as the night the team left. The Jets' blue and red is strewn all over the city's fresh-faced core, the fans' attire looks like it's fresh off the merchandise rack, and tickets were being scalped into the hundreds of dollars.

"People are going absolutely crazy," Gilhen said. "Our city is excited beyond belief."

That went on full display with the Jets' opener Oct. 9. It was witnessed by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as Hawerchuk and other luminaries from the team's past. There was an uncharacteristic roar during the Canadian anthem — played on the ice by the Winnipeg Symphony — that Jets coach Claude Noel described as "15 years of vented emotion."

The game Monday night against the Penguins was the Jets' second on home ice, so things were settling a bit. But it clearly moved the lone player of the Penguins' contingent with Manitoba ties.

"It's Canada, you know, so you can never really take hockey away," Asham said. "But to have the Jets back, the fans are just ecstatic, my friends and family are excited, I'm excited. I'm just glad they're back."

It showed. Asham had dozens of family and friends on hand for the game.

The greatest value any sports franchise has to its city is in the pride instilled in the citizenry, the sense of community. It's also in attention from the outside. Without the Jets, Winnipeg mostly fell off the map.

"It really hurt us in that way," Gilhen said. "People who look at us now, they'll be really shocked at the city. It's changed. It's a vibrant city. Winnipeg never got hit by a recession, kind of like Pittsburgh. And those people who were 18 when the Jets left, they're 33 now, and they're the ones with the money."

That might explain why expectations are high for the Jets to succeed, even though their market and building will be the NHL's smallest. The metro population is 762,000, ranking seventh among Canadian cities. And the MTS Centre, opened in 2004 for the minor-league Manitoba Moose who took the place of the old Jets, holds only 15,004.

But demand for tickets has been so voracious that the entire season was sold out almost instantly. Pricing was set high to match the total take of comparable NHL markets, so the cash should balance out.

Moreover, ownership has the deepest of pockets. David Thomson, a Toronto media mogul and billionaire who recently was ranked the richest man in Canada and 17th in the world by Forbes, is co-owner of the Jets and the MTS Centre.

"Ownership being stable is a whole different dynamic than what was there before," Gilhen said. "The Jets have all kinds of money behind them now."

A whole new generation, too.

"For a lot of us here, losing the Jets was like a death in the family," said season-ticket holder Chris Miller, 40, of Winnipeg. "Myself, I couldn't even go near the rink. I didn't want to watch hockey. I remember getting together with a few friends when the team left and just crying."

Now, Miller can't get enough. He traveled to Chicago for the weekend to see the Jets play there and made it back in time to see them again last night.

"Best part is the kids," Miller said. "I've got a 5-year-old who can grow up seeing the Jets, just like I did."

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