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If just for one day, hockey was all about Jets

10/9/2011

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Long after the final score becomes just another regular-season result in a sea of hockey results, this emotional Sunday afternoon in Winnipeg will continue to hold a place in the hearts of hockey fans.

Not just hockey fans in Winnipeg or Manitoba or even in Canada, but hockey fans anywhere. Because, in the end, regardless of where you watched this game and which team you cheered for, Sunday's game was a celebration of the ties that bind teams to their communities and, perhaps even more important, a celebration of the power of belief.

There will be plenty of time in the coming days and weeks to dissect the Jets' play in an emphatic 5-1 victory by the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday; their power play (0-for-7, including a long 5-on-3); the efforts of defenseman Johnny Oduya, who had two ghastly turnovers that led to goals; netminder Ondrej Pavelec, who allowed five goals on just 22 shots; and the officiating, which Jets fans will accurately point out left a little to be desired on this historic day.

But hey, Winnipeg didn't inherit the 1976 Canadiens, did it?

No, it inherited an Atlanta Thrashers team that failed to win a single playoff game in its history, so there is plenty of work to be done as far as the on-ice product goes.

But everyone knew that going in, didn't they?

And for any fan who has seen his or her team leave town regardless of the sport or the reason, whether it was the Brooklyn Dodgers or the Baltimore Colts or the Los Angeles Rams or the Montreal Expos or Quebec Nordiques, the return of the Jets to Winnipeg was a storyline spun from gold.

The fans in Winnipeg sure understand what it means to get a second chance to embrace and love an NHL team.

"I know how it happened," Jets owner Mark Chipman said before Sunday's game. "I can go back over the past 15 years and I can tell people how it happened, but I'm not sure why it happened. I've had an enormous amount of good things happen to me and I'm not sure why that is. I struggle with that one. Even when I do pinch myself, it doesn't come to me."

When Chipman was shown on the video scoreboard Sunday, the sellout crowd erupted. How often does that happen? Rocky Wirtz in Chicago generates that kind of enthusiasm and that's because the Blackhawks' owner is recognized as having rescued the beloved Original Six team from obscurity. Chipman and media magnate David Thompson, one of the world's richest men who was also on hand this weekend, saved this team from nothing.

"I'm glad that people feel so good about this, I really am," Chipman said. "It is a great city and it has been for a long time. I think it became an even greater city, to be honest with you, after the NHL left in '96. Rather than sort of wallow in self-pity and roll up the sidewalks, I think the community really dug in.

"We've overcome lots, we have for a generation," he added. "I hope that this is maybe just another step in that process, that this is sort of another chapter in that collective act of will. Because it was the act of will of this community over the past 15 years in helping the economy grow that allowed us to bring the team back."

How significant was this day?

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman -- often booed and heckled mercilessly, especially in Canada -- was feted like a conquering hero when he arrived at MTS Centre. He joked that the cheers during a radio interview were for the host (local columnist Gary Lawless), but he also reminded reporters the NHL didn't leave in 1996 because there were questions about the fan base. So, he said he wasn't surprised at the response since the announcement in late May that the Jets were returning.

"It's very gratifying," he said, "and it wasn't unexpected."

The Jets' return was also afforded a special Sunday national broadcast on CBC.

At one point, Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien was shown on the video scoreboard, looking up at the raucous crowd during warm-ups with a look of pleasure and disbelief that spoke volumes about where this team was a year ago and where it hopes to go now.

"It's an honor to be a part of," said forward Chris Thorburn who, like all of his teammates, was remorseful at the outcome. "It's nothing to be proud of as far as our performance goes. We want to make these fans proud of us, so we've got to have a good showing the next home game.

"It's great. They deserved better tonight; it's up to us to give them that. We just appreciate everything they've done, and [what] the whole city and the organization has done for us as players, and we've just got to take it upon ourselves to show that and produce on the ice."

It won't be like this forever; that goes without saying. At some point, the fans will boo Bettman because, well, that's what NHL fans do. And the atmosphere of thankfulness and reverence will fade over time. And some nights when the Jets are trailing 5-1, the fans will go home early.

But not on this day.

Even with the game out of reach, the MTS Centre faithful managed a spirited, spontaneous round of "Go Jets Go" late in the third period. And as the public address announcer introduced the final minute of play in the game, the fans rose as one and saluted their team, the team that came home, with a long, loud ovation.

The moment was not lost on the players.

"That's pretty incredible," Jets rookie Mark Scheifele said. "In Barrie when we'd lose, people would be leaving halfway through the second period. Definitely to hear that, to get a standing ovation when we lose, it just shows that we're going to have fans behind us regardless."

Sometimes, in the end, a game is more than the end result. This was one of those games.