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The anticipation. The hype. The excitement. And, at long last, the return. Oh, what a magical moment that was.
We take you back to Oct. 9, 2011, when the Winnipeg Jets faced off against the Montreal Canadiens at Bell MTS Place. It was the first time an NHL puck was dropped in the regular season around these parts since April 28, 1996 — a span of 5,642 days, for those keeping track at home.
History shows the bleu blanc et rouge crashed the homecoming party with a convincing 5-1 victory, but the result didn't dampen the fact that the best hockey league in the world was finally back where it belonged.
"I got picked up on waivers from the Coyotes three days before the first game. The minute I touched down in Winnipeg you could feel the excitement in the city. I remember walking to the rink and the streets were packed with fans ready to welcome the NHL back to Winnipeg. Easily the loudest crowd I have ever been a part of and although we lost, I was lucky enough to be on the ice for the first goal and all I remember is the roar of the crowd. That will sit with me forever," ex-forward Brett MacLean told the Free Press this week as we caught up with a few members of that squad.
"I was a healthy scratch that (first) game. The popcorn was pretty good," cracked Tim Stapleton. "In all seriousness, the buildup for that first game was something I will never forget. The passion of the fans and the excitement was something I will never see again. As much as I wanted to play it was still a proud moment to be part of the team that night. It was many years of passionate hockey fans desperately waiting for the return of the Jets."
Looking back, it's no surprise the relocated Atlanta Thrashers struggled to a 37-35-10 record with a minus-21 goal differential, well outside the playoff picture.
The star power was lacking. The prospect pool was rather shallow, as proven by the fact MacLean was scooped off the NHL's version of the scrap heap and immediately thrown into the opening-night lineup. And general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff didn't exactly make a big splash in free agency. There were going to be some growing pains, with plenty of learning on the fly.
"The excitement in the building was unbelievable, you could feel the intensity. Our team was not able to match that type of excitement. The players were pumped and wanting to do well, and we didn't play very well, which I understood," recalled former head coach Claude Noel, who was replaced in the middle of the third season by Paul Maurice.
"It's always disappointing to not be able to see it through. I loved every minute and I sincerely believe there are no more passionate and intelligent fans then (those of) the Winnipeg Jets. I tell people that what was most impressive was the appreciation that the fans had for having their team back and the intensity that you can feel when you walk into the building."
Brighter days were constantly promised, and they've certainly arrived over the last three seasons. The Jets were making a run at a third-straight playoff appearance at the time the NHL season was paused last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic with a roster that included 13 drafted and developed players. Consider: Since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, only Tampa, Boston, Washington and Nashville have a better overall win percentage than Maurice's crew, which is 235-136-78 in that span.
With no opportunity to add to that record for the foreseeable future, it seems like a great time to look back at how we got here. In this case, with a focus on that special first season and the players who quickly became household names in their adopted hockey hometown.
As you'll see, plenty has changed in the now 3,100 days that have passed. Of the 23 skaters on the opening-night roster, only four remain with the Jets organization. Another four are with other NHL clubs, while two others are still playing pro hockey overseas. And the other 13? They're all out of hockey, some of them for years.
Enjoy this stroll down memory lane.
Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele
Byfuglien has played 528 regular-season games wearing a Jets jersey, but he's unlikely to play a 529th. He missed this past season while contemplating retirement while also recovering from ankle surgery, and a mutual contract termination is on the horizon that would free him of the final year of his contract. Big Buff brought plenty of highlights to local fans, and he will be missed. He's been a staple on the blue line since Day 1 around here.
Little was limited to just seven games this season after suffering a gruesome head and ear injury when a Nikolaj Ehlers slap shot struck him up high. There have been concerns it could be career-threatening, but Maurice told the Jets website earlier this week he's recovering well and could potentially return if the NHL season resumes this summer. Little's role has changed here, from a first-line centre when the team got here to more of a depth forward. He's been described as the conscience of the organization.
Wheeler has taken the biggest jump, going from a bit of an unknown in that first year to a legitimate superstar and leader who took over as captain prior to the start of the 2016-17 season. The heart and soul of the club is under contract for four more seasons and will go down as one of the all-time greats to play for Winnipeg.
Scheifele got only a brief taste of the big leagues in that initial campaign, coming off an eventful few months where he was the first-ever draft pick of Jets 2.0, scored his first NHL goal and was sent back for another junior season in Barrie, Ont., after seven games. Winnipeg took the slow approach with him, as he spent the following year in the OHL, as well. But the patience paid off as Scheifele has become the top centre Cheveldayoff and his staff envisioned when they selected him seventh overall.
Andrew Ladd, Ron Hainsey, Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane
Ladd was the face of the franchise out of the gate, and the captain gave the Jets a legitimate scoring line, along with Little and Wheeler. His time here ended in the middle of his fifth season in Winnipeg, when Cheveldayoff shipped him to Chicago at the trade deadline in exchange for Marko Dano and a first-round draft pick that turned into current Moose defenceman Logan Stanley. The Jets were going nowhere, the Blackhawks had Cup aspirations and Ladd was a pending UFA. In hindsight, moving on was a shrewd move by the Jets, as Ladd's play deteriorated, due largely to injury. He's played only 200 NHL games and scored 47 goals since, with Chicago and, now, the New York Islanders, while also spending some time in the AHL this year. He still has three years left at $5.5 million per season.
Hainsey moved on in free agency after two seasons in Winnipeg, signing a one-year, $2-million deal with Carolina that led to a three-year extension with the Hurricanes. His time with the Jets will best be remembered for his role during the 2012-13 lockout, in which he was a vocal representative of the players. The veteran blue-liner was traded to Pittsburgh in the final year, where he won the Stanley Cup. He then signed a two-year deal to play in Toronto, and moved to Ottawa this season on another UFA deal. Now 39, he's one of the oldest active players in the league.
Bogosian and Kane will forever be linked for Cheveldayoff's blockbuster trade in the middle of the 2014-15 season, which sent them both to Buffalo in exchange for Drew Stafford, Tyler Myers, Brendan Lemieux and Joel Armia. Bogosian has continued to struggle to stay healthy, and his contract was terminated by Buffalo earlier this season after spending 5 1/2 seasons with the Sabres. He signed a free-agent deal with Tampa Bay in February. Kane eventually wore out his welcome in Buffalo, then was traded to San Jose, where he signed a free-agent deal and remains under contract for five more seasons.
Toby Enstrom, Alex Burmistrov
They're both playing pro hockey, albeit a long way from the NHL spotlight.
Enstrom, who came over from Atlanta and formed a terrific top blue-line tandem with Byfuglien, was not re-signed by the Jets after his contract expired following the 2017-18 season. His final game with Winnipeg was spent in the press box as a healthy scratch for Game 5 of the Western Conference final against Vegas. Since then, the now-35 year old has played two seasons with Modo in the top Swedish pro league. He had 12 assists in 43 games this year.
Burmistrov never reached his potential in Winnipeg, or anywhere else, for that matter. The fact the Thrashers rushed him to the NHL at 18 seemed to stunt his development. He played parts of two years with the Jets, then moved on to Arizona and then Vancouver. Burmistrov eventually went back to Russia during the 2017-18 season, and has skated in the KHL ever since. He had six goals and 12 assists in 58 games with Ufa Salavat Yulayev this year. Now 28, it's unlikely we'll ever see him back in North America.
Nik Antropov, Tanner Glass, Randy Jones, Brett MacLean, Chris Mason, Derek Meech, Johnny Oduya, Ondrej Pavelec, Jim Slater, Tim Stapleton, Mark Stuart, Chris Thorburn, Kyle Wellwood
Antropov will forever have a place in Jets 2.0 history, as he scored the first and only goal in that debut loss to Montreal. His time in Winnipeg was brief, as he signed to go play in the KHL after the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He had 21 goals and 32 assists in 109 games with Winnipeg. Antropov played two seasons with Astana Barys, before retiring.
Glass was known for his gritty play on the effective "GST" checking line along with Slater and Thorburn. The Regina native spent just that inaugural season in Winnipeg (78 games, five goals, 11 assists) after the Jets didn't re-sign the pending UFA. Stops with Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and Calgary followed. He finished his career overseas by playing the 2018-19 season in France.
The undrafted Jones was a bit of a surprise addition to the Jets lineup, but depth was thin. The journeyman defenceman played 39 games that first season (one goal, one assist). He never played another NHL game after that, spending two years in the AHL with Oklahoma City and Portland before retiring.
Waiver-wire pickup MacLean played five games with the Jets (two assists) before being sent to the AHL for the rest of the season, which would be his last.
"Unfortunately in the summer of 2012 as I was preparing for the upcoming season I suffered a cardiac arrest, which cut my hockey career short," MacLean recalled this week. He now lives in Toronto, where he's the hockey director of a private school in Vaughan called the Hill Academy, while also doing skill-development sessions with young players and teams.
Mason came from Atlanta as the backup goalie, appearing in 20 games with the Jets (8-7-1, 2.59 GAA, .898 SV%). He signed a free-agent deal with Nashville the following summer, spending one year with the Predators before heading overseas to Italy and then Germany for the final two years of his career.
Meech was the feel-good local product signed by the organization as blue-line depth. The Winnipegger appeared in 18 games with the Jets over two years (one assist), followed by stops in the AHL, the KHL and Sweden before hanging up his skates in 2016. The Winnipegger has most recently appeared on local Manitoba Moose broadcasts, providing analysis.
Oduya quickly became known as the "pizza man" after Noel famously described a costly giveaway — "handing out free pizza" — the defenceman made in that first year. With the Jets out of the playoff picture, he was sent to Chicago at the 2011-12 trade deadline. He spent parts of four years with the Blackhawks, winning a pair of Stanley Cups (he assisted on Dave Bolland's Cup-winner in 2013). Oduya went on to stops in Dallas, Chicago again, Ottawa and finally Philadelphia before retiring in 2018 with 850 games played.
Pavelec was a lightning rod, with a real love-hate relationship among many fans. He made 260 regular-season starts with Winnipeg over six seasons before losing his job to the tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson and being sent to the Moose during the 2016-17 campaign. Pavelec signed a one-year free-agent deal with the New York Rangers to back up Henrik Lundqvist for the 2017-18 season, appearing in the final 19 games of his NHL career before retiring.
Slater was a fan favourite, not only for his strong work on the GST line but for his community and charitable endeavours. He played four seasons in Winnipeg, then headed to Switzerland to play four more years before announcing his retirement last summer.
The undersized Stapleton came over from Atlanta — he scored the last goal in Thrashers history — and carved out a bigger role as the first season progressed, finishing with 11 goals and 16 assists in 63 games. But that was it for the NHL as the Jets didn't re-sign him. Stapleton headed overseas, spending the final six years of his pro career playing in the KHL, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany before retiring in 2018.
"To be a part of that inaugural team is by far the biggest moment of my career. I'm honoured to say I was a part of that team that season," said Stapleton.
Stuart always gave an honest effort, whether it was blocking a shot or dropping the gloves, spending six seasons with the Jets before Cheveldayoff bought him out of the final year of his contract. Stuart went to Germany for one final year, then retired in 2018 and came back to Winnipeg, where he joined the Moose organization as a team services co-ordinator for one season.
Thorburn was another beloved figure in Winnipeg for his hard-nosed style, and he got the feel-good ending to his career last year as part of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues organization. Overall, he spent six years with the Jets before he was exposed in the expansion draft and selected (but not signed) by Vegas in a side deal made between the two clubs. The Blues signed him for his final two seasons.
Wellwood had a solid first year with the Jets (18 goals, 29 assists in 77 games) after signing as a free agent for that debut season, skating in a top-nine forward role. The skilled winger played the lockout-shortened year in Winnipeg as well, before heading to Switzerland for one last pro season in 2013-14.
They may not have won as many games as they hoped to, but there's no question that initial group of Jets skaters won the hearts of hockey-starved fans.
"It is such a special feeling to have been a part of that moment in not only the Jets history, but for the city of Winnipeg," said MacLean. "There are only so many players that can say they got the opportunity to play in the first game for a new NHL team. The opportunity as a Canadian kid doing it for a Canadian team makes it even more special. I have had the opportunity to go back to Winnipeg a few times since playing there and I think because of that moment Winnipeg will always hold a special place in my heart."
Noel now lives in Phoenix and is in his fifth year as a pro scout for New Jersey. But he also keeps a close eye on how his former club is doing while remembering just how far they've come.
"The buildup to the first season, and the excitement, was unreal. This was a major adjustment for me, because I wasn't able to move around town very well because of recognition," Noel said.
"I feel so blessed to have been given the opportunity and the trust from ownership, management to try to steer this ship into the future."
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.
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