Jets ready for official re-introduction to NHL

WINNIPEG -- The fans were lined up outside the door to the Winnipeg Jets' merchandise outlet at 10:15 a.m. Saturday morning.

Jets flags hung from downtown cranes on work sites, and buildings and bus shelters were festooned with the team's distinctive fighter jet logo.

Inside the MTS Centre, workers were drilling and doing last minute-touchups in advance of the Jets' home opener Sunday against Montreal.

On the ice, the team went through its final practice before the historic faceoff that will mark the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence.

Anticipation? The city is fairly crackling with it.

For the Jets, a team that moved from Atlanta (where it's safe to say the team never once played in such a highly anticipated game), the players occupy a strange place in the equation -- unable to avoid the excitement, but needing to put it in its place Sunday.

"I've been here about a month and a half and it's been unbelievable everywhere, and you can just feel the excitement," netminder Chris Mason said. "That's how I remember hockey growing up as a kid, so it brings back those memories. You see kids, I dropped my daughter off at kindergarten, you've got 25, 30 percent of the kids wearing Jets clothing, the flags on the cars, signs on the buildings. I just feel very fortunate that I'm part of this. It's really exciting.

"We're excited leading up to it, but we have a major job to do. We need to get two points," Mason added. "After the first game is over, maybe it's something we can reflect on down the line. Our focus is on the game, but leading up, it's hard not to get caught up in it sometimes because there's just so much excitement and it's everywhere around the city. That's a conversation you have a thousand times before this game."

Mason credited Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd with helping the young Jets squad keep its eyes on the prize amid the hoopla that has enveloped the team since the start of training camp a month ago.

"I don't know if we'll know how special it will be until we're out there," Ladd said Saturday. "This first game is going to be pretty epic. I'm not saying we can't enjoy it. It's like a Stanley Cup final or a Winter Classic. You have family in town, things going on ... it makes it more enjoyable for everybody to have all that surrounding it. You have to take it in, but use it the right way. You can't get running around -- it's got to be controlled, smart hockey for us."

Jets coach Claude Noel wants his players to embrace the moment. He sure is.

"I can't imagine what it's going to be like out there," he said. "I won't be sitting missing any moments. I'm walking out there for the warm-up and I'll be walking out there for the start of the game and I will smell the coffee, I will smell the roses, there's no doubt. Life's too short, I learned that a long time ago."

His 80-year-old mother, Alice, will be coming in for the event.

"It'll be fun, I'm really looking forward to it. My mom's going to be here and she'll be a wreck. I hope she doesn't have any coffee in the morning," Noel joked. "I pity whoever's sitting next to her. I shouldn't say that."

Up in the stands Saturday, Winnipeg owner Mark Chipman was watching the players go through their drills. He was part of a group of local businessmen that tried to save the Jets at the end of their first run in Winnipeg in the mid-1990s. When the Jets left for Phoenix after the 1996 playoffs, Chipman brought an AHL team to town; and when the NHL started looking for a place to move the moribund Atlanta Thrashers, it didn't have to look for long.

"I don't know if I want to say distance ourselves [from the past], but more carry on what we've been doing," Chipman told a small group of reporters. "When we acquired this team, we had 125 people working for us. It's now up to about 175, but those 125 people had a very deep sense of pride in what we had done for the 15 years prior.

"It's not like we're trying to distance ourselves from the past; we're just trying to forge ahead as the reincarnation or the next step of what we've been doing."

Even though Chipman understood the return of NHL hockey would generate terrific excitement, he said he had no sense of the depth of emotion that would be on display leading up to Sunday.

"Honestly, I couldn't have imagined the depth of the response. I couldn't have. I mean, it's just extraordinary and it's hard to get used to," he said. "It's hard for me personally. People stop you in the street; you can't pump your gas. You can't. And it's great. But it's awkward sometimes, too, because I'm not used to it. I'm happy that people are really excited, but I never would have known that people would be this excited.

"There's been a few where just unexpectedly people come up and they just say thanks. They're not looking to carry on a conversation. They just come up and just shake your hand and say, 'Hey, thanks.' Just want to say thanks. There's been several of those, and those kind of put a lump in your throat."