Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Never again will there be a season like this

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IT is about to come to a close, this magical hockey season which has energized our city, thrilled thousands and has so many engaged again in what is this country's national obsession.

Granted, there is no syrupy, fairy-tale, Disney-type ending -- Saturday's matchup with the Tampa Bay Lighting is the official finale because there will be no playoff shinny in River City -- but that won't spoil what has been for many a dream season that began way back on May 31st.

Yes, it seems like an eternity ago that Mark Chipman took to the podium at the MTS Centre and uttered those now-famous words on national TV that made history in these parts and across the land:

"Today, on my behalf of my family, our partner David Thomson and our entire organization, I am excited beyond words to announce our purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers..."

Some would say our city got its mojo back that day. The cynics, those who boo a sunrise, would counter by grumbling about crumbling infrastructure, hallway medicine and blah, de blah, blah. But this story became so big so fast every significant moment during the summer felt like a Game 7, from the announcements that Kevin Cheveldayoff, Craig Heisinger and Claude Noel would head up the hockey-operations department, to the return of the 'Jets' nickname, to the drafting of Mark Schiefele in the first round to the jersey unveiling at 17 Wing.

The first day of training camp at the MTS Iceplex gave a glimpse of the fans' passion, followed by thousands gathering at The Forks for the NHL launch party before the historic first game on Oct. 9 against the storied Montreal Canadiens.

And then it became about the hockey team, both what was happening on the ice and in the building, where 15,004 decked out in Jets colours gathered for every home game and quickly established the MTS Centre as the loudest rink in the NHL.

Belting out "True North!" during the anthem became both a show of patriotism and a salute to the group that brought the NHL back.

Serenading the opposition goalie and/or star provided a whole new layer to fandemonium and being seen -- and heard -- in downtown Winnipeg on game night became a staple of the winter entertainment calendar.

Hockey fans grumbled about Dustin Byfuglien's wanderings while oohing and aahing at his skill set.

They bemoaned the iffy road record and wondered aloud about the back-to-back woes.

They marvelled at Blake Wheeler's transformation into a power forward, Ondrej Pavelec's ability to steal a game from his crease and came to appreciate the grit of a Mark Stuart.

They were thrilled at the development of cornerstone defenceman Zach Bogosian, sniper Evander Kane and the slick Alex Burmistrov.

Heck, where else but in this NHL-starved market could a third line checking trio -- the 'GST' line of Tanner Glass, Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn -- become so popular fans would not only chant 'G-S-T' every time they stepped on the ice, but rise in ovation after a penalty kill or a momentum-changing shift?

This was a unique and special season, quite frankly, that will be unlike no other before it or after. A team came home and a rabid fan base was, depending on your age bracket, either born or reborn.

Some referred to it all as a honeymoon, a dream vacation of a season. All true, because beginning Sunday the joy and thrills of 2011-12 come to a close and the demands and expectations for 2012-13 are instantly ratcheted up a notch or three.

But that will be then. This is now. And Game 82 should feel a lot like Game 1. It will be a celebration, a party like no other.

And so, it's once more with feeling, Jets fans.

 

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 A1

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