By Stu Hackel
The Forks is a beautiful and historic public park, commercial area and meeting space where the Assiniboine River flows into the Red River. It's where Winnipeggers gathered in 1996 while rallying to save the Jets. Today, thousands gathered there again in celebration of the return of the NHL to their city.
Wearing Jets jerseys and carrying Canadian flags, they streamed into the park. Big screens were set up so people could watch the announcement from the MTS Centre and start the party on the spot, although long before the official word was heard, street hockey games had already broken out at The Forks. One of the players was reportedly Thomas Steen, the former Jets star.
Yes, Winnipeg is rejoining the NHL. The Atlanta Thrashers are no more, unable to find new local ownership after a short history of mediocre hockey, fan indifference and angry infighting among the team's partners. It's not the first change on the NHL map since the Jets flew to Phoenix, but it may be the most culturally significant. After years of spasmodic attempts to bring another club back to Winnipeg or Quebec or to add a second club some place, any place, in Southern Ontario, a seventh Canadian NHL team was announced today and an entire country joined 'Peg City in rejoicing.
What does it mean? What would the Giants and Dodgers returning to New York have meant? What did it mean to Baltimore when the Ravens joined the NFL?
On the local Sports Radio 1290, where the station was preparing to cover the announcement live as well as the parties -- both spontaneous and planned -- the promo announcements trumpeted "The return of Canada's game to the Prairies, the heart of it all." The hosts and callers said they never thought this day would come, never thought the NHL would put a team back in their city, and they reflected on the 15-year absence of a club from hockey's best league, calling it "a landmark day -- the biggest day in Winnipeg sports history." One host said, "I think a lot of people are going to change their feelings on Gary Bettman." The show was tracking his flight, which was, at one point, over Lake Superior, a bit more than an hour away.
Callers from all over Canada phoned, weighing in on what the new team should be called, the Jets or something else. The hosts thought the range of opinion was 50-50 on that, with some preferring the old name, which is so loaded with local hockey tradition dating back almost 40 years to the WHA and the Avco Cup championship teams of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, the Hot Line. Others were content to turn the page, leave the Jets behind and have a new identity for the new team. Should it be named after the city -- the Winnipeg fill-in-the-blank -- or have more of a regional flavor, as in the Manitoba fill-in-the-blank?
Winnipeg Free Press reporter Mary Agnes Welch, hanging out at the downtown crossroads of Portage and Main, tweeted "One guy just walked past P&M grumbling 'effin goons' at small handful of Jets fans." and followed that tweet with "Heheh. The *Manitoba* Effin Goons." Shortly after, Welsh tweeted: "'You can call them the Manitoba Swamp Donkeys, I don't care': Jets fan Cassidy Dankochik, 18, at P&M."
Back on the radio, David Naylor of TSN called to say the fans wanted to go with Winnipeg Jets, that there was validation in that name, and that the league and owners should give the fans what they want. Younger callers who didn't remember the Jets wanted to know who the hosts thought the new team's biggest rivals would be. All the Canadian teams would be rivals, they answered, and a quick review of Jets history was in order: how they never defeated the Oilers during the Stanley Cup playoffs, although they did beat them during the WHA years. The former Jets, the Coyotes, would likely draw lots of interest. And, oh yeah, the new team will play in the Southeast Division for its first season, against Manitoba's "traditional" rivals from Florida, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.
Well, it's not a day to be too critical. The questions about the name, about next season's sure-to-be-bizarre schedule, about the competitiveness of the team (a non-playoff club that could be renovated if new ownership brings in a new hockey department), about the long-term financial viability of a team moving to what will be the league's smallest market and playing in its smallest building with a salary cap that has some small-market teams quietly grousing about how high it has floated since 2005, about the abandoned fans in Atlanta, all those questions are for another day.
No, today is a day to rejoice with the people of Winnipeg, who will be asked to open their wallets and pay some pretty high prices to watch the new, fast version of NHL hockey. Their WHA Jets pioneered that style of play when GM Rudy Pilous signed Hedberg, Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg, then other European stars Willy Lindstrom, Kent Nilsson and Veli-Pekka Ketola, creating a thrilling club that won championships and accolades.
Now the game is ready for Winnipeg again.
,,,and the un-plugged version...