Jets win… but have that empty feeling

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It was, by almost every measure, a perfect night for hockey to make its long-awaited return to Winnipeg.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/01/2021 (680 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was, by almost every measure, a perfect night for hockey to make its long-awaited return to Winnipeg.

Outside Bell MTS Place, a gentle snow started falling a few hours before puck drop, covering the slushy brown streets and boulevards with a fresh coat of winter white. Inside the rink, there was the nervous anticipation and excitement of a new NHL season and all the intriguing possibilities that come with a clean slate.

On opposing ends of the ice were two heated rivals, the Jets and Flames, with memories of their controversial playoff series from last summer still smouldering. There was Public Enemy No. 1, Matthew Tkachuk, on Calgary’s side, and the superstar he injured, Winnipeg centre Mark Scheifele, lining up on the other. You couldn’t have scripted a better opening night matchup.

An official looks over the rink as the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames warm up in an empty arena prior to their opening game of NHL action in Winnipeg, Thursday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Or a better result for the home team, it turns out. Sixty minutes wasn’t enough to solve it, with the Jets rallying from an early two-goal deficit for an exciting 4-3 overtime victory. And playing the role of hero was Patrik Laine, the guy whose agent made off-season headlines by suggesting a trade would be “mutually beneficial” for both parties.

Not on this night it wouldn’t have been. Not even close. The Jets celebrated their hard-earned victory by gathering at centre ice, as they always do after putting two points in the bank, and raising their sticks to salute the faithful who helped them along the way.

Only the seats were covered with blue tarps. Yes, it was, by almost every measure, a perfect night for hockey, which in this case was the first NHL game around these parts since way back on March 9. Except for the fact there wasn’t a single fan present to soak it all up.

Had there been the usual sold-out crowd Thursday, instead of what was basically a made-for-TV-event, the opening-night revelry would have quickly been muted as the visiting Flames raced out to a quick 3-1 first period lead. And there was Tkachuk opening the scoring, because of course he did. Hey, villains gonna villain.

Oh, how the jeers would have rained down from the rafters for the pesky son of Jets legend Keith Tkachuk, who now wears the devil horns after taking out Scheifele in the opening minutes of their playoff series last August with a hit that coach Paul Maurice believed was a dirty, deliberate act.

Fortunately for the Jets, the soundtrack being played doesn’t discriminate, and the piped-in cheers didn’t abate despite the scoreboard. And yes, they even threw in the usual “True North” chant when Stacey Nattrass reached that particular point of O Canada, which she sung from the stands. Why mess with tradition, I guess.

Having spent a month inside the hub city of Edmonton, first the Jets series and then the Stanley Cup Final, I can vouch for the fact Winnipeg’s version is much, much louder than what we heard inside Rogers Place.

Maybe the lack of a restless hometown crowd helped settle the early Jets jitters and rally them to a terrific second period, in which Scheifele got a measure of revenge with a goal, and Tkachuk had a few swings taken in his direction during a melee that really got the bad blood boiling. Fans would have eaten that up, no doubt.

But the artificial noise, along with the blue tarps covering the lower seats served as a vivid reminder that there’s still a pandemic raging in the real world, even as the sports world tries to soldier on with an ambitious, and very expensive, plan.

If everything goes as scheduled, there will be 27 more of these empty-arena affairs in Winnipeg between now and early May, and another 28 Jets contests in buildings in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa as part of the newly-formed Canadian division which keeps players on all clubs exclusively north of the border, which remains closed to non-essential travel.

One thing is clear: The games are going to be fun as heck. With plenty of parity along with national bragging rights at stake, the first contests between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens, and Canucks and Oilers, produced 17 total goals on Wednesday night. The Jets and Flames followed that up with a beauty of their own, the first of nine meetings between them.

As long as this all doesn’t go off the rails.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Hockey fans were replaced by tarps over the seats in the stands behind the Winnipeg Jets bench as they take on the Calgary Flames in their season-opener at BellMTS Place, Thursday.

Winnipeg has already had its first COVID-19 scare, as star winger Nikolaj Ehlers was sent home before practice Wednesday for fear he might have contracted the virus. He was also absent during Thursday’s morning skate, and it wasn’t until mid-afternoon that a rapid test came back negative and he was cleared to play.

Get used to this, folks.

Between the whistles, the hockey was as you’d expect for a pair of teams who didn’t get any exhibition games to work out the kinks. Sloppy, to say the least. Defensive breakdowns, turnovers and missed passes were the order of the day.

It was uncontrolled chaos at times, the kind of game that sells tickets. Only none are being sold, the usual pick-up window in the main vestibule at the rink turned into a check-in point for the handful of media allowed to view the proceedings from the reduced-capacity press box high above the rink, masked and socially distant from colleagues the entire time.

That’s as close as we will get to the action, or the players, this year. Dressing rooms for post-game interviews are off-limits, with all proceedings happening online.

“I hate this Zoom s—,” Jets coach Paul Maurice told us earlier this week, a reference to the fact he couldn’t see the face of a scribe asking a question to know whether he was making a joke or being serious.

No, it’s not ideal. But at least we have hockey back, even if it looks and sounds and feels a lot different. This will have to do, for now. And when it finally returns to the form we know and love, that will something to truly stand up and cheer about.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

History

Updated on Friday, January 15, 2021 12:28 AM CST: Adds photos.

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