Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Times sure change over 15 years

NHL now far removed from what it was in '96

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COLUMBUS -- Here we go. NHL games between NHL teams with NHL players in NHL cities.

Winnipeg, once again, is in the middle of all of that, 15 years, 4 months and 22 long days since it was last true.

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The 2011-12 pre-season proper starts tonight for the new version of the Jets. They, along with the Columbus Blue Jackets, will divide up their camps for a day and play games in both the MTS Centre (7:30 p.m. CT) and here in Nationwide Arena (6 p.m. CT).

Is there some irony that Winnipeg, re-entering the league on what's widely believed to be solid and stable ground, starts out by playing and visiting one of the NHL's latest additions, one that has recently seen the locked safety covers come off the panic buttons?

Columbus was not an NHL location when Winnipeg exited in 1996. That many millions of dollars have bled from the central Ohio franchise in recent years is only a sign of the times, that the league's expanded footprint into the U.S. has not really changed what used to be the case on what is and what isn't a hockey market.

Many other things have changed in this time.

We know Winnipeg has, which is why Mark Chipman and David Thomson pulled the trigger on their deal to buy the Atlanta Thrashers on May 31.

Winnipeg's hockey geography has morphed overnight. So long, Peoria and hello, Nashville, for instance, where the Jets will play Saturday.

Another place the NHL was not 15 years ago.

Winnipeg is changing destinations but travel remains, it occurred to me Monday on the way to the ancient airport.

Many of the rules are different -- don't you dare take a bottle of water through security -- but many of the same folks there are still on the job, like the efficient and smiling Maria at the Delta counter.

And the Free Press continues to cover Winnipeg's hockey just as it did for the last 15 Moose seasons, there for every stride, home and away, for fans and readers.

Travel for the team, though, will be one big difference this fall.

The Jets will take chartered aircraft wherever they go -- it's now an NHL rule, a big change since 9/11 -- and the days of Moose flights to hubs like Chicago or Toronto or Boston or Houston and then multiple bus hops in those regions are a thing of the past.

I will honestly miss some of those stops, Providence, Houston, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and Portland among them. Others, not so much.

For years, it seemed to me that almost all of those places were on the periphery, tantalizingly close to NHL markets but just far enough away to feel the distance.

What I won't miss is that just about everywhere we have been in IHL and AHL days, hockey was a hard sell. Don't get me wrong; many outstanding people (hello, Bob Kaser) worked long and hard and passionately at that very task. And got results.

Some pockets have their rabid fans, but generally beyond the violence, blood, beer and in some cases themselves, what are they fans of?

The big separator is what generates the most enthusiasm in my day -- star power,.

It is not the nature of the AHL, which rather executes its mission of development in an exemplary way.

Many Winnipeggers admirably bought into that philosophy and now reap their reward, shifting focus to today's stars versus tomorrow's, though surely this year's Jets will provide some of both as they struggle to go up the NHL ladder.

Beyond the philosophical considerations, what else is different?

-- A salary cap, important, at the top of the list.

-- A media universe immensely changed. Not only will every Jets game be easily available on television this season (as opposed to maybe 15 in 1996), kept and available NHL statistics have grown in multiples and the Internet and its wide-reaching tentacles of social media have altered the breadth of coverage and input around all things NHL.

-- There was a brief time in the 1990s where our sports editor required permission to assign two Jets stories in one day. Doubt we'll see that again.

-- Y2K was an overblown scare; the concussion epidemic is not.

-- An NHL moving towards, but not quite there, banning all shots to the head.

-- Shootouts, love them or hate them.

-- Two referees.

-- Two-line passes.

-- Two minutes for shooting the puck over the glass from your own zone.

-- Two of Winnipeg's best voices will be missing, Don Wittman and Jack Matheson.

-- For avid Moose fans, no more doubleheaders.

-- No portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, long may she reign.

-- Some of Winnipeg Arena's music (we hope).

Finally, short-sightedness and disappointments of the past cannot be changed. As Winnipeggers determined to improve the future, may we never forget them.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2011 C4

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