ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Hockey fever hit Newfoundland on Monday as thrilled fans watched the Winnipeg Jets—parent club of the new St. John's farm team—beat the Ottawa Senators 3-1 in a pre-season win.
Mile One Centre shook to capacity with 6,275 roaring, singing and thunderstick wielding fans who haven't had a pro team here since the St. John's Maple Leafs left in 2005.
They'll be cheering this year for the American Hockey League's newest outfit, the St. John's IceCaps.
"It kind of reminded me a little bit of a packed junior game," said Jets rookie Mark Scheifele, 18, a training camp hopeful who leads the team in pre-season scoring with three goals and three assists.
"It was fun to play in St. John's."
Scheifele scored the first of two unanswered goals in the second period, batting a puck out of the air past Alex Auld, while Troy Bodie made it 2-0 for the Jets against the badly outshot Senators.
Ben Maxwell added the other goal for Winnipeg.
Ottawa rallied and got on the board in the third period as Mika Zibanejad stuffed one in on Jets netminder Ondrej Pavelec.
Despite a lengthy power play in the third period on a fighting penalty taken by Winnipeg's Patrice Cormier, the Sens were not able to tie up the match and were outshot 36-28.
The rare NHL spectacle on the Rock was as much a thrill as it was a happy coincidence.
It just so happened that nearby Conception Bay South, N.L., won the chance to host the pre-season game as part of the annual Kraft Hockeyville contest. That hard-won victory nicely dovetailed with the move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, while the AHL's Manitoba Moose became the St. John's IceCaps.
And for 25-year-old Senators forward Colin Greening, who grew up five minutes from Mile One Centre, the chance to play an NHL game in his hometown was a dream come true—despite the final score.
"It was a lot of fun and I love the Newfoundland music. You never hear that in other arenas," he said of Great Big Sea and other local favourites that inspired some fans to sing along or dance a jig.
"I think it was just more fun for me because I knew it was all Newfoundlanders, you know, people that I grew up with, people that I share hockey with.
"Hockey here is huge,'' Greening, a left-winger who debuted in Ottawa last season with six goals and seven assists in 24 games, said earlier Monday.
"I know sometimes you forget about Newfoundland because we're so far East and we have our own time zone, but hockey's big here. Everyone's born on skates.
"We're proud Canadians, so it's great to have Hockeyville here and to get another AHL team.''
Hundreds of kids and parents skipped school or work early Monday and flocked to the arena for pre-game morning practices. Their hunger for more good hockey was obvious.
Newfoundland, an island in the unforgiving North Atlantic, has always been a geographic challenge for competitive sports. But the provincial capital has rallied behind the IceCaps with brisk season ticket sales and the backing of team president Danny Williams, the popular former premier who helped engineer the return of pro hockey.
There was a range of fan-favourite sweaters in the crowded stands of Mile One—from the traditional Newfoundland favourites of Toronto, Montreal and Boston to the Ottawa Senators.
Many locals also cheer for Detroit in support of native Newfoundlander Daniel Cleary. His success is credited with helping inspire a new wave of NHLers from the Rock, including Greening, Teddy Purcell of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Michael Ryder and Adam Pardy of the Dallas Stars, Ryane Clowe of the San Jose Sharks, and Luke Adam of the Buffalo Sabres.
St. John's resident Jason Hopkins and his four-year-old son, Blake, wore Ottawa Senators sweaters as they took in the morning practice.
"It's wonderful to see the Sens and Winnipeg here," said the mortgage specialist.
"It's great for the local economy and it's great for community spirit also. I should certainly be working right now, but it's a maybe once-a-season opportunity to see Ottawa play, so I'll take the morning and make up for it this afternoon for sure."
Michelle Peach of Conception Bay South watched the pros practise with her sons Emilio, 16, Ethan, 12, and eight-year-old Evan.
The community logged 995,368 votes to win the contest which included $100,000 for upgrades to the local hockey arena.
"It was just exciting to actually win," Peach said. "I'm from the mainland and I've seen lots of NHL games. But my boys haven't. So I thought it would be a great opportunity for them.
"They eat and sleep hockey."
The Alberta native is an Edmonton Oilers fan but says she will now cheer for the Winnipeg Jets as a second favourite "because it's closer to home."