Jets’ fans get what they’ve been longing for — a game

 

 
 
 

WINNIPEG — This is what they were waiting for in Winnipeg, these last 15 years.

They might not have known it, of course, or maybe they simply forgot. But they weren’t waiting for a fairy tale ending, for sudden success, for perfection. Hockey does not lend itself to perfection. Hockey lends itself to hockey.

And that, after all this time, is what Winnipeg got. In the first regular season National Hockey League game in this town since 1996, the home team lost 5-1 to the Montreal Canadiens. And it was still, all in all, a most Canadian occasion.

“Of course it’s not the start we wanted,” said Jets goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who was emphatically beatable all day. “The people didn’t deserve that score, 5-1, but that’s hockey. It’s one game . . . and it was 5-1, and the people still cheered for us. That’s why we have to be better.”

It began, of course, as a celebration. The streets were flooded with fans in Jets gear, as were The Forks, one of the city’s gathering points. Outside a father and his son walked the sidewalk and the father said, “Anybody selling a pair of tickets for two grand?”

In the arena, the Prime Minister was in attendance, after unveiling a special commemorative 50-cent Jets coin that morning. Some fans held up a great big picture of the Queen — the one from the old Winnipeg Arena didn’t return with the team — flanked by signs that read “God Love Our Jets”, and “God Save Our Jets.” There were signs that said “Go Jets Go,” and an even more germane sign said “Stay Jets Stay.”

When it came time to cheer, boy, what a sound they made.

Of course, there was the necessary ritual. The Jets, most of whom were former Thrashers, were introduced one-by-one and skated out towards centre ice, ringed by the logos of two Atlanta-based companies, Coca-Cola and The Home Depot.

The Canadiens were roundly booed. Unfortunately, the anthem was botched — Chantal Kreviazuk was off-key, and she and Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy couldn’t quite pull it off. It should, of course, been left solely to the fans. Oh, well.

By contrast, the tribute to the late Rick Rypien, signed by Winnipeg this summer before reportedly taking his own life, was perfectly heartbreaking. The video montage began with childhood pictures of Rypien — posing in uniform, with his trophies, with a Calgary Flames hat, with his father, with his mom.

On the scoreboard he got older, made the NHL, and finally walked through the bench and into the tunnel with a Manitoba Moose uniform on, and in the here and now the players softly tapped their sticks on the ice. His mother walked out with the Jets co-owners, Rypien’s friend, mentor and Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and performed the ceremonial faceoff.

Then, it was time for the game.

After 15 years of waiting, of pining, of anger and desire, that’s all it really was. Montreal scored the first goal just 3:05 in when Michael Cammalleri, who was later hurt, snapped up an unwise cross-ice pass from Johnny Oduya — a “free pizza,” as Winnipeg coach Claude Noel called it — and wired a wrist shot over Pavelec’s glove. They scored again after Oduya was pickpocketed by Tomas Plekanec in the second.

The MTS Centre was silenced, just like anywhere else.

It was not until 2:27 into the third period that Mark Stuart sent a shot from the point that popped back out into the slot, and Nik Antropov jumped past Canadiens defenceman Raphael Diaz and banged it past Carey Price for the first Jets goal in 15 years.

The bit of goaltender interference on the play was ignored, and the building stood and roared, and suddenly it was a game again. Stuart flattened Canadiens captain Brian Gionta, and a scrum broke out, and even slow-to-anger Hal Gill needed to be held back. P.K. Subban was sent to sit in the penalty box in front of an “I’m With Stupid” sign, and Stuart got a penalty as well, and the joint was jumping.

Byfuglien got hit with a dreadful interference call, and Yannick Weber scored on the power play, and it never got any closer than that.

Pavelec had a lousy afternoon, as did his defence — Travis Moen will never score a prettier goal if he plays for 20 years — and Winnipeg fans were reminded that the team they inherited finished 17 points out of a playoff spot last season. And after the game Byfuglien was asked “With all the hype around this game, will it be good to get out on the road with the guys?” proving that this 15 years away be damned, this is already a hockey team, with all the rhythms of a hockey town, again.

So after a decade and a half, this is what Winnipeg fans got: They got the right to complain about a terrible call, as well as to be the beneficiary of one. They got the right to sing along to an inglorious anthem, to fill their 15,004-seat arena with a magnificent noise, and to be quieted after an early Montreal goal.

They got the right to buy tickets to the 50/50, and to swell the pot to an incredible $141,284 — half went to the winner — and to make GO JETS GO sound like thunder. A bare few even took advantage of the right to beat the traffic. As a wise press box man said, “They’d been waiting 15 years to be able to do that.”

But as the clock ticked down almost everybody in the building stood and cheered and chanted “Go Jets Go” some more, at the end of a four-goal loss. Incredible. This is what returned to Winnipeg — the right to be NHL fans again, with all the attendant complications that come with it. This game wasn’t the storybook ending. This was the start of ever after.

National Post

barthur@nationalpost.com

Twitter.com/bruce—arthur

 
 
 
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Scoreboard

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Detroit
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Los Angeles
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