Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A big homecoming kiss

Newlyweds part of an emotional season opener

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The woman in the white wedding dress was a hockey player, obviously.

"It's such a great game," gushed Rachel Wu, standing in the foyer of the MTS Centre with a wedding party in tow, all in Jets jerseys. "And nothing is more exciting to watch live."

So exciting, in fact, that Rachel and Gabriel Wu exchanged vows at the Messiah Lutheran Church in Westwood at 2 p.m, then headed to the arena, where they have Jets season tickets. They weren't about to miss Sunday's opener against the Montreal Canadiens or miss celebrating their new beginning with fellow Winnipeg hockey fans.

"We went to the first period," Rachel said. "Now we're heading to our reception."

How fresh were the wedding vows? When a reporter asked to spell their names, the bride said, "I'm Rachel Wu." Said the groom, raising his eyebrows: "That's the first time I've heard her say that (last) name."

As it turns out, walking down the aisle then straight to a hockey game wasn't the groom's idea. "Oh, I was real cool with it," said Rachel, who plays recreational hockey with a women's team called the Ice Dogs. "I'm the one that got the season tickets."

So it was that a team 15 years divorced from the NHL was welcomed back by Jets fans, coming by the thousands to settle in the pews of their new Portage Avenue house of hockey worship. Some came carrying their childhood memories and a torch for a love 15 years lost. Some carried a belief the return of the Jets would represent a new future for their city.

Jerrold Wiebe carried Queen Elizabeth.

"We're in the very back row," explained Wiebe, toting a much smaller portrait of the Queen than famously hung in the rafters of the old Winnipeg Arena. "So we're going to hang her in her rightful place. We're bringing the Queen with us."

Even two hours before opening faceoff against the storied Canadiens in the rebirth of the NHL in its smallest market, the atmosphere outside the 15,004-seat arena had the air of a New Year's Eve celebration. "It's neat to see Winnipeg alive again," said Wiebe's wife, Jeannette. "It's feeling good that the city is waking up again."

The need to share the joy of the NHL's return was palpable. For example, the Wiebes and two other couples had just two tickets between them, so each watched a period, then switched off. "We wanted to share," reasoned friend Elvera Stoesz.

Make no mistake: Prime Minister Stephen Harper was on hand for the occasion, as was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the Queen, at least in spirit, but Sunday's return of the new Jets was all about those who saw the original team leave for Phoenix in a heart-wrenching long goodbye in 1996.

"When (the Jets left in 1996) I was crying like a child," offered Cory Young. "My heart just got ripped out of me. Now, when you look at the pent-up enthusiasm in the community, it's phenomenal. I think we're walking a foot taller than we were on May 31st (when True North president Mark Chipman announced the purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers)."

Thousands of fans milled outside the Portage Avenue arena, the vast majority decked out in Jets paraphernalia, both new and retro. A group of eight 20-something buddies was dressed in white tuxedos. Other fans went to greater extremes.

"This is the biggest buzz Winnipeg has ever had," proclaimed 22-year-old Ryan Gilmour, decked out in a one-piece Spandex unitard with a Jets logo on the chest, cape included. "Hockey is the fuel that runs Winnipeg, so getting the Jets back is huge."

Gilmour called himself Captain Jet and plans to attend games (he's sharing season tickets with friends) in his caped persona.

Mikey Lintick, 26, was dressed with his buddies in white tuxedos. "We wanted to welcome them back as they left, only in a classier way," he said.

At the last game of the old Jets Lintick saw, his mom wanted to leave early to beat the traffic with the home team trailing 3-1. "She (his mom) said, 'Don't worry, I'll take you to the next game'... and here I am today."

Lintick represents a generation of 20-something Winnipeggers who have been so prominent in celebrating the team's return.

No surprise, he said. "We were kids, right? It means so much to us and we didn't know any better (when the team left). You can't explain it. It's something deep down in your heart about remembering your childhood."

Mark Strople and his 25-year-old son, Braden, attended the last regular-season Jets game in 1996. On Sunday, they were standing on Hargrave Street with father wearing an Andrew Ladd jersey and son wearing Dustin Byfuglien's number.

"It just blows me away," Braden said. "Just the energy of the city. The excitement. It's taken it to a different level. The city feels better about itself. The way people view Winnipeg is a 180."

The Stroples have two red seats from the old arena in their basement. They were perched on them while watching the Jets' first pre-season game on television. On May 31st, they slapped in a VHS tape of Teemu Selanne.

Mike Delaney, 44, came carrying a photo on his iPod of the first-ever Manitoba Moose ticket -- a road game in Milwaukee on Oct. 4, 1996. "The birthplace of the birthplace of the NHL returning," he said, referring to the instrumental role the Moose played in the development of True North and the building of the new arena.

"The difference," said Delaney, a former Moose fanatic who bought Jets season ducats, "is that my tickets have gone up 500 per cent. Am I crazy to do it? Yeah, but... "

Then there was Marcien Deroche, 84, who along with son Claude couldn't wait for the opening faceoff.

"I don't know how important this for everybody else," Marcien said, his eyes welling with tears, "but it's sure as hell important to me. I'm glad I'm still here to watch. When I see them drop the puck, I'll be saying, 'I'm with the Jets! I'm still here and I'm 84 years old. Unbelievable!' "


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2011 A5


Updated on Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 7:36 PM CDT: deletes duplicated paragraphs

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