Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Welcoming the second coming

MTS Centre fans roar as 'Jets' name made official

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The MTS Centre thundered with the grateful roar of nearly 4,000 hockey fans intent on making one thing crystal clear: This is Winnipeg's team and they are, and always will be, the Jets.

Gathered together at a viewing party for the 2011 NHL entry draft hosted by True North Sports & Entertainment, the team's owners, fans watched on the arena scoreboard as chairman Mark Chipman made the long-awaited announcement from St. Paul, Minn.

For many, finally making the Jets name official made the dream of the NHL returning to Winnipeg a reality.

For Laurie Thompson, it felt surreal to be sitting in the crowd after waiting so many years for the NHL to return to Winnipeg.

"You almost don't think it's happening," said Thompson, who brought a list of the top draft picks with her to the event.

Her 22-year-old son Jordan said he couldn't remember a time he saw his mother more upset than when the NHL left.

"It's been a long 15 years," she acknowledged. "I don't think we ever gave up after all those years."

Moments before Mark Scheifele was named Winnipeg's first draft pick, she added: "if (they're called) the Jets, it'll hit home right away."

But even before Chipman took the stage at St. Paul's XCel Energy Center Friday night, fans were on their feet at the MTS Centre back home in Winnipeg.

Mike Debrowski, 23, had managed to squeeze himself into the same Jets jersey he'd worn to the team's last game in 1996.

The vintage No. 7 Keith Tkachuk sweater barely fit over his torso and the sleeves only reached his elbows but Debrowski wore it proudly.

"I had this jersey when I was eight years old and I'm still wearing it," said Debrowski. "I honestly cried when I heard that they were coming back to Winnipeg."

"It's like I've woken up on Christmas morning and gotten everything I've ever wanted," said Debrowski.

Debrowski and his friends stood in a huge crowd of fans clad in Jets gear that included Winnipeg's celebrated 'Dancing' Gabe Langlois, who brandished a sign that read: "My First NHL Entry Draft Party 2011."

Even with every person in the arena on their feet, you could have heard a pin drop when Chipman asked general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to make the pick "on behalf of the Winnipeg Jets."

Chipman's phrase -- "on behalf of the Winnipeg Jets"-- seemed to hang in the air for only the briefest moment before a deluge of ecstatic sound erupted in the arena.

Thousands of cheering, stomping, waving, hugging and beer-brandishing fans poured forth their gratitude for the man many hold responsible for bringing back the beloved Jets.

It was almost as though they wanted Chipman to hear them, all the way in Minnesota.

"Chipman stepped up," pronounced season-ticket holder Chris Manchur. "He's the one."

Art Beals, 79, agreed: "Chipman is a tremendous owner. He kept the faith."

But it was the faith of the fans that was rewarded Friday night.

For Mike Randchenka, who brought his nine-year-old son with him to the arena, it has been a long 15 years. But finally, the Jets are really and truly back: "It's good. Now we have an identity again."

meghan.potkins@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2011 A4

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