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Welcome back Wings, it's been too long

Detroit last team to face Jets 1.0, back in '96 playoffs

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What were you doing 6,398 days ago?

If you have any soft spot for hockey, it's a good bet pain was part of your day.

The number marks the time elapsed since the last visit of the Detroit Red Wings.

It was April 28, 1996, a spring Sunday afternoon at the since-demolished Winnipeg Arena, that this countdown started. It still holds a lot of hurt for some. It was a time of acrimony, of bitterness, of blame, of resignation, ending and starting with Detroit's 4-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets 1.0, a result that ended the first-round Stanley Cup playoff series at four games to two for the powerful Wings.

Today, as the Red Wings visit again, is one of those days that shows what goes around, comes around.

The NHL's return to the Manitoba capital more than two years ago was and has been a largely celebratory affair. Occasions have been marked, familiarity with opponents old and new has been embraced and never mind the enthusiasm, the league's bet on the 2011 move has been shown to be a wise choice in so many ways.

And really, once a shrinking minority of fans realized that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was not the bogey-man in this drama that goes back at least 20 years, elements of past anger and frustration have really had no concrete opportunity for release.

The Wings, worthy, lucky or unlucky to have been the team that terminated the Jets in 1996, do open the door for some of that.

Allow us a brief rewind. The re-opening of old wounds is not the point.

The series, a one-vs-eight, 131 points vs. 78, began with two Detroit home wins, a 4-1 Jets response at home before Detroit rattled in four power-play goals for a 6-1 win here in Game 4.

Game 5 went back to Detroit and when the night was over, Jets goalie Nik Khabibulin had one of the best games of his career with 51 saves for a 3-1 decision.

It went back to Winnipeg, where the Wings proved just too powerful, skating out to a 3-0 first-period lead. Norm Maciver scored that era's final Jets goal in the third, but his team mustered only 13 shots against Mike Vernon, a day with very much a funereal feel.

The series that looked like a mismatch even featured a lot of penalties and some bad blood. Winnipeg fans did not bathe themselves in glory and were excoriated for throwing of crap on the ice during and after Game 4.

The Wings and the league were on the receiving end of both barrels for Sergei Fedorov's appalling knee check that knocked Jets captain Kris King out of the series with a ripped-up knee in Game 5. There was no penalty, no discipline.

That Sunday's post-game began the mourning and there wasn't much sweet about the sorrow during the ensuing week's parting.

"At least around the team, I don't remember the mood being sombre at all at any time during the course of that series," said then-Jets GM John Paddock last week. "We were in a playoff race, and at that time, I think we were the only lame-duck team in any sport to make the playoffs.

"We had focus for lots of reasons.

"But when we lost Game 6, we really felt slapped in the face, because any time you lose a series, it's the last game. That in itself is devastating, and of course we knew how it was going to be, that we'd be moving.

"It was like getting slapped twice."

But the sun came up on April 29, 1996, just as it did today.

The catharsis -- and only the rose-coloured-glasses crowd would say there wasn't one -- lasted some months and years before a realization emerged that no, the sidewalks hadn't been rolled up and no, the NHL's decision hadn't been a mortal wound.

Of course, it was equally true that the faction of critics of the Jets' presence and reception of public and taxpayer support that believed a Jet-less Winnipeg would thrive with more hospitals and schools was similarly deluded.

In the aftermath, was there the feeling of depression? For some.

Was our pride tarnished? For a time.

But things change, as they always have a habit of doing. Winnipeggers moved on from the hurt and from the wrong. They changed many economic factors in this prairie city in small increments that led to critical substance some years later.

And while others in bigger places continue to laugh at us for fumbling the NHL question in the mid-1990s, for our weather and our lofty hopes and dreams, the low-vision and low-leadership crowd of the past gave way to some folks who figured out how to get some things done.

Building a new arena with some heavy lifting and cold shoulders to the naysayers, well, that was one of the big things. That and other events led to the creation of the right climate for the NHL's return.

Paddock said he has never forgotten the Winnipeg crowds and people during and right after that last series.

The same people who, however slowly, embarked, as Bettman put it just a couple of years ago, on "righting a wrong."

Welcome back, Detroit. We hope you've discovered you won't be getting rid of us easily.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 4, 2013 C2

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