Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thousands gather for Forks family bash

Devoted crowd cheers jets overhead, big-screen game

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For all their cheers and all their colours, the few thousand people who gathered at The Forks will enter the records as a footnote to the history being made a few blocks to the east.

But while the eyes of the hockey world focused on Portage Avenue, the party by the rivers shone bright in the mellow light of a balmy October sky. There were bands, yes, and free stuff too: Free chips. Free foam hands. Free corporate swag and free chances to win Jets tickets.

Most of all, there were stories of the Winnipeggers who were shut out of the MTS Centre but came to watch the game at The Forks with their eyes wide open.

"I had to come," Danielle Chiniah said as she watched her children cavort on the grass in front of Scotiabank Stage.

Chiniah was at the old Jets' farewell rally at the Winnipeg Arena. She came to The Forks wearing a jersey signed by almost every member of the last team. "I swore I'd never wear it again until the Jets came back," she said. "This is amazing. I left Winnipeg for six years... I'm so excited to be back here when this is happening."

Unlike the first time Winnipeggers celebrated the return of the Jets at The Forks, there was no bubbly and little braggadocio. This was, as the Family Fanzone name made clear, an easygoing gathering: There were toddlers in Jets gear, and dogs in Jets gear, and wheelchairs decked out in Jets gear.

As local rockers Quinzy delivered their version of Elton John's Benny and the Jets, Guy Chateau -- in an old-school Hawerchuk jersey -- danced with his giggling granddaughter Danica, 3, in her brand-new Jets T-shirt.

When Danica was born, he didn't imagine he would be able to share his old team with her.

"My best memory is the Jets coming back, right now," Chateau said. "I don't want to remember when they left. I want to remember today."

Others had reason to remember the old days. As Manitoba country rockers Doc Walker kicked off their pre-game set, former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray strolled by the stage, patted the pair of home-opener tickets inside his suit, and thought back to how it all began.

"It's a little emotional for me," Murray said. "I remember in 1998, a meeting between Mark Chipman and I. We were having a hot coffee, sitting in the Fyxx on Albert Street, and literally drawing out on the back of a napkin where a new arena could go. I'll never forget that."

At the time, Murray said, the group agreed that with the right spot, the NHL could come back, someday. Six months later, Murray was the mayor of Winnipeg; 13 years later and the Jets are back, baby.

As game time neared, the crowd settled onto blankets and lawn chairs to watch the big screens at Scotiabank Stage. For Rick Gabrielle, the outdoor setting was a far cry from the other time he saw the Jets for the first time, watching the old squad play the Detroit Red Wings when he was only 12.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said.

But for the first game of the Jets' rebirth, Gabrielle gave his season-ticket seat to his teen son. Dad and wife Wanda dropped the kids off at the arena and joined the throng at The Forks instead.

"We had our time, now it's their time. We get to give them that gift," Gabrielle said, beaming. "They're our eyes inside the arena right now."

Then the game flickered into life on the big screens. Though the new Jets could not hear them, the fans at The Forks rose to their feet and sent up a thunderous cheer as each player skated out into the spotlight; they clapped, they danced, they linked arms and shouted at the fighter jets that streaked low over the stage.

Then the puck dropped. The rest is history.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2011 A6

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