Winnipeg hockey fans are fierce in their devotion to the game and sophisticated in their knowledge of it. So it was not much of a surprise to most of us that the Winnipeg Jets did not make the National Hockey League playoffs this year. This was, after all, pretty much the same team that used to be the Atlanta Thrashers, and, in that much longer incarnation, had hardly ever made the playoffs.
Being a sophisticated fan, however, does not make being a loser any easier -- everybody wants to win, and, although the Jets did not make the playoffs, everybody did win this year in one way or another. The hockey team found a new home in a new arena where the seats were sold out as soon as they went on sale. Despite the team's spotty performance, the fans have been extraordinarily enthusiastic. The MTS Centre has become famous -- or infamous, if you prefer -- as the noisiest arena in the NHL and that fan noise is reflected in the way that the team's home record is so far superior to its record on the road.
So even if the last game of the season on Saturday night against Tampa Bay didn't even matter except statistically, Winnipeggers win. They have the pride and the pleasure of an NHL franchise that they have always wanted and certainly deserve.
The biggest winner in all of this, however, is the city itself. The branding alone benefits the city as people across the country -- across the world, wherever hockey is watched -- follow the games and the team and learn a little bit about Winnipeg
More importantly, the return of the Jets, if you want to call it that, has given new life to Winnipeg's long-desolate downtown.
When it is hockey night in Winnipeg, there are actually people on Portage Avenue in the evening, something that has not been seen much in recent years. The bars and the restaurants are booming as 15,000 people come in from the suburbs to see a hockey game.
Most importantly, perhaps, the Jets have given a renewed sense of confidence to a city that has too long been doubtful about itself. It is an odd thing that something as seemingly simple as a hockey team could do that, but it is clear that it can -- you can feel it in the sense that the city now has of itself and its identity.
One can only imagine what might transpire if the Jets become contenders -- next year in Winnipeg, maybe.