Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets fly above and beyond

Easy choice for Winnipeg's biggest news story

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It is the journalistic equivalent of a breakaway goal on an empty net -- with the opposition running into each other in the other team's zone. Without sticks. Or skates. Or any of their five senses.

Yes, the return of the NHL to Winnipeg and the dusting off of the Winnipeg Jets brand is the top story of the year in the River City.

How could the panel of editors at the Winnipeg Free Press pick anything but this story?

In eight years or so, we'll probably be writing about it being the story of the decade. And can anybody foresee a more important event for the rest of the century?

Yes, Winnipeggers have gone completely overboard with excitement as they finally got to scratch a 15-year itch, following the heartbreak of the original Jets taking off for the Arizona desert to become the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996.

And there have been more than a few ripple effects.

Let us count the ways (and dollars). Winnipeggers shelled out more than $50 million for season tickets in a matter of days last June; the value of real estate within a few blocks of the MTS Centre has shot up as the Jets' home rink is now seen as one of the key building blocks for a sports, hospitality and entertainment district in the downtown; restaurants, pubs and bars in the area are seeing unprecedented traffic, particularly on game nights; and sporting goods, clothing and other retailers have seen virtually anything with a Jets logo, both retro and new, fly off the shelves.

Oh yeah, and we're bursting with pride at being back on the international radar, too.

"We've been absolutely amazed at the power of this story and this team," said Free Press editor Margo Goodhand. "Randy Turner's book Back in the Bigs has been on the bestseller lists for weeks, and a ticket to a game is like gold.

"Even folks like me who don't know their Burmistrov from their Byfuglien have become quickly educated in all things NHL. It's really been an exciting time for the city and all its hockey fans."

The rumour mill about the NHL finally coming back to Winnipeg had been heating up for a couple of years -- propelled mainly by the growing fiasco in Glendale, Ariz. and its desperate attempts to keep the Coyotes in town -- but when Glendale's city council agreed in May to fund up to $25 million US of the team's losses for the 2011-12 season, the relocation talk refocused squarely on the Atlanta Thrashers. The team was unquestionably ripe for the picking -- it had been bleeding millions of dollars a year, had an uninterested group of owners who failed to find local capital to keep it there and played in front of a half-empty (or worse) audience most nights.

Less than three weeks later, Mark Chipman, chairman of True North Sports & Entertainment, uttered the following words that sent many thousands of hockey fans in the city and province into an unprecedented frenzy.

"I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers," he said, flanked by principal partner David Thomson, NHL president Gary Bettman, True North president Jim Ludlow and Premier Greg Selinger, at perhaps the best-attended press conference in Manitoba's history.

"In a sense, you could say True North, our city and our province have received the call we've long been waiting for."

And then we partied in the streets like never before. Impromptu games of ball hockey broke out at Portage and Main and at the Forks. Scores of fans broke out into chants of "Go, Jets, go!" and "O Canada." Kids cheered. Grown men cried tears of joy.

But the return of the Jets -- Chipman announced the relocated Thrashers would assume the city's dormant hockey moniker at the NHL entry draft in St. Paul, Minn., in June -- was just the beginning of a hockey-crazy final seven months of 2011.

The team sold out 13,000 season tickets in a matter of days, a new logo and jersey were introduced, the home opener against the Montreal Canadiens and the return of favourite son, Teemu Selanne and the Anaheim Ducks in December, were "where were you when?" moments, and the MTS Centre quickly developed a reputation as one of the loudest and least hospitable arenas in the NHL.

It couldn't possibly get any crazier. Could it?

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2011 A13

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