WINNIPEG — The party is on at the MTS Centre and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been front and centre at the celebration.
"The reception by the fans and overall community has been nothing short of sensational," said Bettman, who participated in the ceremonial opening faceoff with Jets co-owners David Thomson and Mark Chipman, assistant GM Craig Heisinger and Rick Rypien’s mom, Shelley Crawford.
The commissioner said it was only natural to be in a party mood today in Winnipeg.
"If you miss something terribly, which was clear from the reaction we’ve been getting over the years from the fans here, when you get it back it’s cause for celebration," he said.
Bettman even found himself in the unusual spot of having fans chant his name in the arena’s front concourse before the game.
"It was very warm and enthusiastic," Bettman said. "As long as it’s not quiet. As long as they’re not ignoring me, I’ll take the passion."
Bettman was asked how he felt hearing his name that way while he was on his way to do a pre-game radio interview with TSN Radio 1290.
"I thought the other radio guy, his name was Gary (Lawless, a Free Press columnist), too, so I thought they were cheering for him," Bettman chuckled.
The commissioner was often blamed for the league's decision to relocate the Jets to Phoenix in 1996. At that time, the team was struggling with attendance at the old Winnipeg Arena and couldn't find a new ownership group.
It's all water under the bridge now.
"I don't personalize these things," said Bettman. "For people who understood what happened 15 years ago, while it may have been my face that was put on it, people know that I was not the least bit happy. In fact, we did everything possible not to move the club. ...
"It wasn't personal then and while frankly I'm happy to have been a part of the equation that restored the team, the credit goes to the people in Winnipeg without whom this wouldn't be happening."
The biggest change was the emergence of owners Thomson and Chipman, who built the MTS Centre seven years ago.
They had a celebratory lunch Sunday with Bettman and other dignitaries, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Chipman joked that it was part of his normal game day routine.
"Oh I had my regular lunch with the prime minister, the commissioner, the ambassador (to the U.S.), the premier," said Chipman. "No, honestly I did. It was quite a remarkable lunch. Not my regular lunch crew.
"It was very humbling to be in that company."
While they dined, the fervour in the city continued to grow in anticipation of the game. Cars honked their horns as they drove past the arena while fans sporting face paint and Jets sweaters — both new and old — chanted and high-fived one another.
The large civic street party didn't surprise Bettman.
"Throughout those 15 years, we never doubted that there were great fans here," said Bettman.
"It's terrific, it's exciting," he added. "It shows you the passion that fans have for our sport, it shows you what Winnipeg as a community is like when there's a common cause to celebrate and support. It's very gratifying and it wasn't unexpected."
Before leaving town, the commissioner joined in the celebration. He picked up two Jets sweaters for his grandkids.
— with files from The Canadian Press