Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We made some noise

Players remember Jetsmania, hope it returns again soon

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It wasn't the big National Hockey League shindig at The Forks that Mark Stuart remembers most one year later. And those daily signs of the growing frenzy -- from the first announcement on May 31, to the jersey launch through to training camp and preseason -- were all juicy moments to have experienced.

No, what sticks out for the veteran Winnipeg Jet about Oct. 9, 2011 -- the day the city and province made its triumphant return to the NHL -- is this:

"We were in the locker room before the game," Stuart recalled, "and before we even went on the ice you could hear everybody, all the fans, going absolutely nuts.

"You know, home openers are always fun. But that one was special, for obvious reasons."

Understandably, this will be an emotional week for Jets players, whether they are the handful of regulars still gathering to work out at MTS Iceplex or those spread out all over the globe attempting to keep their skills sharp.

Their NHL futures remain a bit of an unknown at this point, what with no end to the lockout on the horizon and this Saturday's 2012-13 home opener now crossed out on the calendar with a big, fat 'X.'

So they practise, pray for a quick resolution and, on the one-year anniversary of the Jets' 2011-12 opener, they reminisce.

"The day hockey came back to Winnipeg," said veteran centre Jim Slater. "That was quite the scene. Skating out there for the warm-ups, the fans have already packed the building, signs are everywhere, all the hype... that whole atmosphere, that's what I'll remember.

"I'm so glad I can say I was a part of that. In your career you don't have the opportunity to play in a new city that is getting its NHL team back.

"It's too bad, though," Slater continued. "Right now we're not so much thinking about that, but wishing there was a game here in four days."

It could be said that the emotional impact of the lockout will be felt here in Winnipeg more than any other NHL market. Consider that Oct. 9, 2011 is now part of this province's sporting history.

And now just over a year later -- and after waiting a decade and a half for the NHL to return -- the MTS Centre will be dark on Saturday for what was supposed to be the second home opener in the franchise's rebirth.

"We were part of the excitement last year and we could feel it," said Stuart. "But now, to not be playing... I know how it feels for us and so I can only imagine how it feels for the fans. We felt their excitement all of last year, but we can't really feel their disappointment now.

"Sometimes I wonder if the disappointment now is the same, if not more so, than the excitement we all felt last year. It's tough."

Slater and Stuart will readily admit the next little while will feel like they're being yanked through an emotional grinder. They are thinking not only about lost wages, but lost chunks of careers with an average length of just 5.5 years.

And you can bet Jets boss Mark Chipman is experiencing the exact same disappointment from the other side of the negotiating table. All that work done to relocate the franchise and make the players feel comfy in their new home and now... nothing.

"There was a newness about everything last year," said Stuart.

"That's why I was so excited about this season. We had the experience of last year and I think it helped us grow as a team.

"Every home game felt like a home opener. But after a while we had to just learn to win and try to string some wins together.

"This year, now we're acclimated and we can just play we were hoping, we're STILL hoping, we can become a playoff team.

"We're doing everything we can to stay in shape but, mentally, all we can think about is we should be playing at MTS in front of another sold-out crowd."

 

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Reminiscing about Oct. 9, 2011 and the Jets 2.0 home opener:

 

The score: Montreal Canadiens 5, Winnipeg Jets 1

The crowd count: 15,004 and the first of 41 consecutive sell outs.

The heroes: Nik Antropov scored the lone Jet goal, with Mark Stuart and Alex Burmistrov drawing the assists.

The villains: Tomas Plekanec scored once and added two assists for the Habs with the other goals courtesy Mike Cammalleri, Travis Moen, Max Pacioretty and Yannick Weber. Carey Price kicked out 30 of 31 shots for the victory.

The ceremonial face-off: Featured Shelly Crawford, the mother of the late Rick Rypien, dropping the puck between Brian Gionta of the Canadiens and Jet captain Andrew Ladd.

The national anthem: was sung by Winnipegger Chantal Kreviazuk and Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy while backed by members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

Dignitaries in the house: PM Stephen Harper, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Jets co-owner David Thomson.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2012 C1

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