Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City soars on wings of Jets

First game -- a win -- drives it home: we're back

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They sang it in full throat, finding a little extra oomph for True North strong and free, letting the world know they were back and after 15 years of silence are to be ignored no longer.

Yes, the players on the ice are the literal embodiment of the Winnipeg Jets but if ever there was an example of a sports team being nothing without its fans it is our Jets.

So while Tuesday night marked the official return of the Jets to the NHL it also should be recorded as the night Winnipeg's NHL fans were given back their boarding passes.

Loud and proud after so many years of being called too small and too poor. Not good enough for the NHL, this city was told again and again but that sentiment was hurled to the floor and stomped into submission this night.

Winnipeg is an NHL market again. Check the highlights on TSN this morning. We're back. End of discussion.

"It was like a Stanley Cup final. The first two minues were wild. The whole night was wild. I almost got carried away," said Jets coach Claude Noel.

Such an occasion as this couldn't be contained in one game with half the Jets zipping down to Columbus for a 5-1 loss but the marquee end of the split-squad show going right here in our town and ending in a 6-1 victory for Winnipeg's NHL outfit.

Little Kevin Clark, who played junior hockey with the Winnipeg South Blues and broke in as a pro with the Moose, was chosen by Noel and assistant GM Craig Heisinger to skate in the starting lineup and tie up the Moose era with a farewell bow while at the same time opening up a new time in Winnipeg hockey.

"This was special. This was a long time coming for the drop of the puck. It was electric. It was amazing. Let alone to play in this game but to pot one - it was awesome," said Clark.

Clark lived up to the moment late in the second period, whacking in a goal off a hot crease-crossing pass from rookie Mark Scheifele.

Goodbye Moose, it was great to know you. Hello again, Jets. We missed you.

While it was true Winnipeg hockey fans sometimes crushed on the Moose it's also true they never fell head over heels in love with them like they have with the Jets.

The score will be read as simply another pre-season game but for those at the rink and in homes across our Prairie it was so much more.

The big night is still to come on Oct. 9 with the storied Montreal Canadiens paying a visit to open our regular season return to the NHL but for a dress rehearsal this was a smash.

The clock read 7:30 p.m. when the sellout crowd of 15,004 kicked it into gear with a ferocious chorus of Go Jets Go. A few minutes later as Ondrej Pavelec led his teammates onto the ice they drowned each other out as a huge wall of sound rose up from ice level and into the rafters and beyond.

Take notice hockey world, they seemed to shout. "The Jets are back and they've brought us with them."

Or maybe it's the other way around.

"When we got out there it was deafening. At one point it was pretty loud after the anthems. Like in Edmonton in the finals when I was with Carolina," said captain Andrew Ladd. "It's a small building and it really echoes. I can't even imagine what it would be like if we got to the playoffs."

Stacey Nattress opened a mostly pedestrian version of the Star Spangled Banner before unloading with an O Canada not many here will ever forget. The crowd joined in and shared the stage. It was historic and patriotic. It was Canadian hockey at its best.

Scott Arniel, long a white hat on our hockey scene but now wearing the black hat as the coach of the opposition Blue Jackets, was rocking on his heels behind the visitors' bench. Jets boss Claude Noel was striding up and down to whisper a quick note of encouragement to his charges.

The crowd, sensing the end and the beginning were about to intersect, took their energy and growl to a new height.

This was the point in time so many had wished for as a dark era faded away and a fresh day emerged all crisp and bright.

 

The players, new kids in town to this drama, caught the emotion and exploded into action with two huge hits and two fights before the first shift was up.

Fifteen years of pent up frustration tightened the tension on both benches and in the stands and then popped in a geyser of violence and noise.

The rest was a blur as Scheifele introduced himself with flair and Dustin "Big Buff" Byfuglien threw his disputed weight around with purpose.

Soon we will be all wrapped up in wins and losses and while it was nice to record a victory on this night the outcome was pre-determined back in May when Mark Chipman let us in on the secret.

The Jets were coming back. Yep. And we're winners again. Just ask us.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2011 C1

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