While most NHL cities only had to spend the summer without hockey, the city of Winnipeg has had to wait significantly longer. Finally, that wait is over.
The Jets will open the season as Winnipeg's first NHL team in 15 years Sunday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 5 p.m. ET) when they host a Montreal Canadiens team that's trying to avoid starting with consecutive defeats for the first time in more than a decade.
The original Jets in Winnipeg debuted in the NHL in 1979 after the World Hockey Association folded, and they played in Manitoba until 1996, when the franchise moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes.
After spending the past 15 years with only the AHL's Manitoba Moose, Winnipeg got another shot at an NHL franchise. The city welcomed the former Atlanta Thrashers in late May and announced the team would be renamed the Jets a month later. While there was little reaction to the Thrashers leaving Atlanta, the NHL-starved citizens of Winnipeg have rejoiced with the Jets' arrival.
The team sold out its 13,000 season tickets in just 17 minutes and has already sold out its allotted tickets for the next three years at the MTS Centre.
It figures to be quite a different atmosphere from playing in front of less-than-enthusiastic crowds at a half-full Philips Arena in Atlanta.
"Definitely it's a big change," forward Evander Kane said. "Coming to a Canadian market and a Canadian city where hockey is No. 1. We've got some passionate fans, and a passionate province, so I think it's a fresh start for everybody." Now it's up to the Jets to give the fans something to cheer about.
The franchise finished last season 34-36-12, missing the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 years in Atlanta. A second-half collapse knocked the Thrashers out of postseason contention, as they went from sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference on Dec. 20 to going an East-worst 15-25-7 the rest of the way.
They finished in 12th place in the conference, 13 points shy of the playoffs.
"I think the pace of our game dropped off," captain Andrew Ladd said of the sputtering finish.
It will be up to new coach Claude Noel and his staff to make sure it doesn't happen again.
One of the biggest reasons for the late swoon was a struggling defence. The Thrashers allowed an average of 3.6 goals in their final 47 games after giving up an average of 2.9 in their first 35.
"Obviously, we gave up too many goals," said Ladd, who led the team with 29 goals and 59 points last season. "You can point to a few things, but we had a young team and we can learn from that and not make that mistake twice."
The Jets return both goaltenders — Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason — and six defencemen from last season's team.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will be in the stands for Sunday's game. Harper said this week he asked for four tickets and would pay for them himself.
They'll open against a Montreal team that is still seeking its first goal after losing to Toronto 2-0 in Thursday's season opener.
The Canadiens had plenty of chances early, outshooting the Maple Leafs 14-4 in a scoreless first period, but came out with a lackluster effort in the next 20 minutes. Montreal managed only four shots in the second and also gave up a short-handed goal.
"We need to regroup and try to figure out a way not to have that lull in the middle of the game, to carry on what we started in the first period and have a 60-minute effort," said captain Brian Gionta, who has six goals in his last seven games against the Winnipeg franchise.
Carey Price stopped 16 shots in the opener for Montreal, which hasn't opened a season with back-to-back losses since 2000-01.
The Canadiens went 2-1-1 against the Thrashers last season, and Price was in net for three of those games, going 2-0-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average.
Pavelec, who is expected to start the opener for the Jets, was also solid in three games in last season's series, going 2-1-0 with a 1.64 GAA and one shutout.
While Winnipeg obviously needs Pavelec and the defence to step up, it's also hoping for more offensive contributions from Kane and more late-season production from Dustin Byfuglien.
The 20-year-old Kane had 19 goals and 24 assists in his second season in the NHL in 2010-11, while Byfuglien was second on the team with 20 goals - only four of which came after Jan. 2.