ST. PAUL, MINN. -- It's late -- not last-call late, but a good 90 minutes after the Minnesota Wild have edged the Winnipeg Jets in pre-season action -- when a couple of visiting newspaper hacks exit the Xcel Energy Center looking for a cab.
Spying one at a watering hole right across the street, the pair hustle over just in time to overhear the following from inside the packed joint...
"Are there any Jets fans still here?" hollers the lead singer for a live band, eliciting a loud response from the packed house. "This one goes out to you...'
And with that comes the familiar notes and opening line to Rush's Spirit of Radio.
"Begin the day with a friendly voice, a companion unobtrusive..."
So, yes, let's state for the record that this burgeoning rivalry between the Jets and Wild has some very real potential.
There is the geography -- what with a hockey-mad province bordering a hockey-crazed state. There is the realignment that has placed the two clubs in the National Hockey League's new Central Division.
And, of course, there's this, uttered by a Wild executive on the elevator post-game:
"This is going to be a great rivalry," he said. "Their fans travel so well."
That's a given and it was obvious well before the puck dropped Saturday night, with a "Go Jets Go!" chant breaking out in the warm-up and with "True North!" bellowed on cue during O Canada.
'This is going to be a great rivalry. Their fans travel so well'
And that madness continued from the opening shift until the final horn... in a pre-season game.
"I'll tell ya, I noticed the Winnipeg fans in the stands leading on the cheer and then getting booed (by Wild fans)," said Jets coach Claude Noel afterward. "I don't usually pay that much attention to that or I don't usually hear it. But I did here.
"That's what you're going to get, I think, especially from Winnipeg people that can't get to (home) games but can maybe get to games here. It's great for them."
Maybe that's the real meat of the matter here and what is going to fuel this Jets-Wild rivalry, because it certainly wasn't that way in previous hockey lives for both cities. The Jets 1.0 -- both the World Hockey Association squad and the first go-round in the NHL -- didn't have this relationship with the old Minnesota Fighting Saints and North Stars.
But tickets back then were hardly scarce, so why drive 800 kilometres to see Dave Keon and John Garrett of the Saints or the Stars' Neal Broten or Dino Ciccarelli when, quite often, the likes of Gretzky and Lemieux weren't always packing the Winnipeg Arena back home?
Now, it is often said that no rivalry is really hatched until two clubs meet in the playoffs when the consequences -- win or go home -- bring out the best and the nasty in teams.
But here's a look at why so many are of the belief Jets vs. Wild could really morph into a healthy hate-on...
THREE KEYS TO A GOOD RIVALRY
1. Geographic location: The MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg is 750 kilometres north and west of the Excel Energy Center in St. Paul, making the Wild the Jets' closest rivals. Should the NHL continue to package these games on the weekends where the sports calendar is full -- the Vikings' 2013 home opener was Sunday, making it a dandy weekend for Jets fans who do travel -- and more Manitobans are apt to head south for more than just the hockey and shopping.
2. Games with meaning: The main rivals for the Jets 1.0 were the Oilers and Flames from the Smythe Division, not the old North Stars. The present-day Jets are now in the Central Division with the Wild, making an October matchup that's much more juicy.
3. The fan base: Fans in Manitoba and Minnesota are hockey-trained, so they applaud a good cycle or a shot block as much as a tic-tac-toe highlight-reel goal. They are rabid and loyal and, in the case of those Jets fans who can't watch their beloved team live at the MTS Centre, will jump in the car or hop on the plane to follow them around the hockey map.
THE MATCHUPS: TWO GAMES DO NOT A RIVALRY MAKE
History helps fuel a rivalry and, unfortunately, last year's lockout stagnated Jets vs. Wild as both clubs were limited to games within their own conference and did not meet. So it's hard to label this a true hate-on until the franchises get a little more busy with each other.
That said, the two contests between the Jets and Wild in 2011-12 offered some very real hints of where this relationship could be headed.
In the first meeting back on Dec. 13, 2011, at the MTS Centre, the Wild rolled into town on a seven-game winning streak and as one of the NHL's elite, but it was the Jets who emerged with a 2-1 win, courtesy some stellar netminding by Ondrej Pavelec and a late power-play goal by Bryan Little.
The game also featured one fight, with Tanner Glass squaring off with Clayton Stoner, and a nasty hit with just 66 seconds left in which Zach Bogosian hammered Pierre-Marc Bouchard face-first into the boards behind the Jets net. Bogosian would receive a game misconduct, but -- to the great dismay of Wild fans -- was not suspended by the league.
And in the second contest, a 4-3 Winnipeg victory on Feb. 16, 2012, in which Evander Kane scored twice in regulation and then sealed the deal in the shootout, thousands of Jets fans not only helped fill the Xcel Energy Center, but took control of the place. The contest featured another fight -- Glass vs. Darrell Powe -- and lots of the after-the-whistle chirping that was evidence of the intensity.
But it was the presence of all the out-of-town Jets fans that was prominently featured in every post-game media report. Those on the ice couldn't help but notice, too.
"Not only were they there, they were noisy and you knew they were there," said Jets' winger Blake Wheeler after the game. "It's always fun to go on the road and know your team travels well and see them make the game not so fun for the home crowd, maybe stir things up a bit."
A SPARK OR TWO
Nothing can fuel a healthy rivalry like bulletin-board material or a spark, quite often delivered by the teams' propaganda, er, public-relations departments. The Wild, who have been searching for a true rival since their birth in 2000-01, offered up a dandy last week when they paid a visit to Winnipeg for the first of two pre-season games.
Using their Twitter account, the Wild posted this:
'... on verge of #mnwild and @nhljets rivalry renew, we look back at memorable game from North Stars/Jets rivalry.'
Included in the tweet was a photo of a newspaper article from Nov. 12, 1981, with the headline: "North Stars Smash Records, Jets 15-2."
Well played, Wild. And don't think the folks at the Jets -- who do the in-game production stuff as well as anyone in the NHL -- haven't noticed.
Back to the scene outside the Xcel Energy Center Saturday night. Dozens of Jets fans, many decked out in the team's double-blue jerseys and sporting Jets hats, are now singing in unison with the band's Rush cover.
'Invisible airwaves crackle with life
Bright antennae bristle with the energy
Emotional feedback on timeless wavelength...'
It's September. And it's still only the pre-season.
Yes, this could be the beginning of a beautiful rivalry.
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