Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Former villain gets hero's welcome

Winnipeg fans give Bettman warm greeting

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The amazing party atmosphere in downtown Winnipeg Sunday included NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

"The reception by the fans and overall community has been nothing short of sensational," Bettman told reporters gathered at the MTS Centre before the historic return of the league to the city -- the Jets' season opener against the Montreal Canadiens.

"If you miss something terribly, which was clear from the reaction we've been getting over the years from the fans here, when you get it back it's cause for celebration."

The indications in the week leading up to the game was that Bettman would be in attendance but he would not be publicly introduced or acknowledged.

That seemed to change on Sunday afternoon, when the Jets organization and the league boss himself found the reception unusually warm.

Bettman then participated in the ceremonial opening faceoff with Jets co-owners David Thomson and Mark Chipman, assistant GM Craig Heisinger and Rick Rypien's mom, Shelley Crawford.

Asked about having fans chant his name in the arena concourse while he was on his way to participate in a pre-game radio show with Free Press columnist Gary Lawless, Bettman was whimsical.

"I thought the other radio guy, his name was Gary, too, so I thought they were cheering for him," Bettman chuckled.

"It was very warm and enthusiastic. As long as it's not quiet. As long as they're not ignoring me, I'll take the passion."

He said he took no offence to having been blamed by many when the NHL left Winnipeg in 1996.

"I don't personalize these things," Bettman said. "While it may have been my face put on it (15 years ago), people know I was not the least bit happy.

"It wasn't personal then and frankly, while I'm happy to have been part of the equation of restoring the team, the credit goes to the people here in Winnipeg without whom this wouldn't be happening."

Based on the reception Sunday, and the huge buildup to the opening game here in Winnipeg, Bettman was asked if he hadn't wished he'd brought a team back to Winnipeg sooner.

"We know there's no shortage of interest in having a franchise in lots of cities," he said. "But we don't have any franchises to move."

Several times during his session with reporters, Bettman lauded the ownership and the initiative of Chipman's and Thomson's True North partnership.

"We're thrilled to be here," he said. "This is obviously a terrific day for the city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba, the entire country of Canada and the entire National Hockey League. It's a testament to Mark Chipman and David Thomson, to their perseverance and their persistence and the way they've conducted themselves.

"True North has been an absolute delight to deal with and they've had a lot to accomplish in a very short period of time and they've done it extremely well."

Bettman also expressed his continuing confidence in the league's move back to Winnipeg.

"There's a common cause to celebrate and support," he said. "It's very gratifying and it wasn't unexpected."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2011 C6


Updated on Monday, October 10, 2011 at 8:23 AM CDT: Changes art.

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