Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Jets return made real

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In case you missed it, the Beatles broke up and yes, the Jets are back.

It all became real and tangible with sticks and skates and ice and whistles on Saturday. No longer just in the dreams of so many Winnipeggers and in the mind of Mark Chipman - the Jets returned and did so for real.

At 9:04 a.m. the Winnipeg Jets stepped onto the ice in this city for the first time in 15 years.

Not as a group of oldtimers playing a charity game, not some prospects in a young stars skate, but the real thing. NHL players, fighting for NHL jobs with an NHL franchise.

Training camp for the 2011-12 Winnipeg Jets opened with the first of three on-ice sessions at the MTS Iceplex Saturday morning and with the Winnipeg Free Press rink open to the public, there were close to 1,500 fans in attendance when the first group hit the ice.

"It felt pretty good, coming out of that chute," said Winnipeg native Derek Meech, who along with Kevin Clark was one of two hometowners on the ice early Saturday. "I can’t say it caught me off guard, but it was a welcoming cheer from all the great fans in Winnipeg. It was quite an honour to be on the ice for this and a really fun time."

The session lasted just over 90 minutes and as it wrapped up around 10:37 a.m. the newest Jets were serenaded with that old familiar chant for their first time as this city’s NHL team.

"Go Jets go" broke out in earnest as the players huddled at centre ice for a few words from coach Claude Noel and they gave their nod of approval as they left the ice, lifting their sticks in the air to salute the fans.

"For a Winnipegger, to be out there with the people in the stands seeing their Jets come back, this is something I’ll never forget. You want to focus on the practice and think about this stuff later but it was kind of historic, I guess," said Clark.

The players filed off the ice and needed to cross the arena lobby through a tunnel of fans waiting for them after the skate. Captain Andrew Ladd stopped to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

"To come out to that roar, it was almost like a real game with the energy in there," said Ladd.

For fan Pat Dheilly, 27, Saturday was the end of a fleeting romance.

"When the Jets left, I began cheering for the Habs. That’s over as of now," said Dheilly. "I’ll be cheering for the Jets and wearing my Jets gear when they play the Habs in the opener."

Pete Guttormson said he could never settle on a new team because he never lost faith the Jets would some day soar again.

"I tried to find one and I bounced from team to team. Being a patriot I cheered for the Canadian teams," said 46-year-old Guttormson. "But I viewed them all as rivals of the ex-Winnipeg Jets. But now it’s simple. I cheer for the Winnipeg Jets, baby."

Guttormson won’t be cheering alone in his house.

"This an emotional moment. All the naysayers said for years they wouldn’t come back. For me, I have two young boys in hockey, this is a dream come true," he said. "My boys claimed to be Jets fans without having ever seen them. Now they have their team back, too."

Kim Renaud and his two-year-old son Hadyn fell out of bed Saturday morning to go meet their new heroes.

"I was up at 7 a.m. and I was excited. It was a little harder getting him out of bed," said Renaud, 34, wearing a Jets hat with his son in a team T-shirt and ball cap, too. "This is so awesome. I got to cheer for them before and now we can do it together. I kind of left hockey when the Jets left but now I’m back. We can have a real connection together over this."

For Eddie Sawatzky, there are new heroes in town.

"That was something special. It was so fun. It’s awesome. Chris Mason is playing. My friend Alex got autographs from a bunch of players. Andrew Ladd is here and Dustin Byfuglien too," said 13-year-old Sawatzky.

Saturday was just one in a line of many firsts as the Jets skate towards their date with destiny on Oct. 9, when they host the Montreal Canadiens for their first regular season game back in the NHL.

The ride has begun, folks. Hang on with a smile.

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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