On Oct. 9 it had been 15 years, five months and 11 days since a team called the Winnipeg Jets played a significant game of hockey in the province of Manitoba. And over the course of those 5,642 days Winnipeg hockey fans have dared to dream that one day their hockey heroes might return to this fair city and mend the pain in their hearts only the most devastating blow could cause.
When True North Sports and Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman made the official announcement the NHL would be returning to Winnipeg for the upcoming season on May 31, 2011, the tidal wave of passion and emotion released from fans all across Manitoba was simply overwhelming. Jets merchandise sold like hotcakes, season tickets sold out in mere minutes, and the first Winnipeg Jets game of the 2011-12 regular season instantly became the hottest ticket of the year.
But could a game with so much attention, so much symbolism, and so much raw emotion possibly live up to expectations? As the date crept closer towards the big game, heart rates across the nation rose in anticipation of possibly the biggest moment in the province’s sporting history.
The Jets home opener became the most hyped-up hockey game since Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals last year, and at least one fan predicted the atmosphere would be comparable to the infamous Winnipeg crowds that sold out the old Winnipeg Arena for playoff games in the ’80s and ’90s.
“I’ve been to a playoff White Out game in 1996, and that’s what I’m going to base it on,” said David Robin, a U of M student who lucked out and scored a ticket to the game. “I think it’s going to be very close to that, if not [louder]. The acoustics in the MTS Centre are a better, so therefore it should enhance the sound.”
“Just mayhem and loudness. It’s gonna be crazy!”
Jets fans converged on the sidewalks around the MTS Centre hours before the first puck drop, as thousands more made their way down to The Forks to watch the game on the big screen at ScotiaBank Stage.
“The people out on the street are very warm and very appreciative,” said Chipman, referring to the fans congregating outside the arena. “It’s an outpouring of emotion that’s probably been many years coming.”
There was electricity in the air walking around the main concourse, as fans bought up souvenir programs, Jets merchandise and the usual food and beer offerings. Fans got their first opportunity to see their team hit the ice during the warm-ups, as the players were received with the first cheer of the night.
It was loud and only got louder during the introduction of the team on scoreboard. If there were indeed fighter jets flying over the arena as planned, the roar of their engines would have been drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Looking around the crowd, the days of visiting fans nearly outnumbering the hometown fans — as was the case near the end of the original Jets time in Winnipeg — are a thing of the past.
Montreal got on the board first, as Mike Cammalleri scored his first goal of the season just over three minutes into the first period. The setback momentarily dampened the spirit of the crowd, but it seemed as if no amount of adversity could ruin the evening. Moments later, the crowd broke out into the familiar chant of “go Jets go” as they tried to get the team back into the game.
Montreal led 1-0 heading into the second period, and the Jets had a fine opportunity to get right back into the game — starting the second period with a two-man advantage for 49 seconds — but the opportunity was squandered. You could feel the tension rise throughout the building as the time continued to run off the clock with the Jets shooters failing to tally a goal.
Suddenly the score was 2-0, and the crowd seemed completely removed from the game for the first time since puck drop. They would slowly work their way back into the game through the remainder of the second, but it was clear that the unbridled optimism so evident in the first period had faded.
With only 20 minutes remaining in the inaugural game, the Jets players had to get the fans back in the game, and Nik Antropov did that in a huge way, scoring the first goal in Winnipeg Jets history early in the third. A thunderous hit brought the fans to their feet for the second time and the Jets had all the momentum. Montreal capitalized on a 4-on-3 opportunity following a questionable penalty on Dustin Byfuglien to restore their two-goal lead. Travis Moen extended the Montreal lead half way through the third, and Max Pacioretty would add a fifth goal that put the game completely out of reach.
Officially, the first Winnipeg Jets game will go down in history as a frustrating 5-1 loss for the home team. Whether the Jets won or lost, the game 15 years in the making was bound to be emotional, exhilarating and an unforgettable night for every hockey fan, young or old, who calls Winnipeg their home.