The local band Inward Eye rocked. Three Days Grace rolled. Legends Randy Bachman and Fred Turner provided a magnificent nostalgic touch on the revelry at the Forks to kick off the 2011-12 NHL regular season.
The new hockey season, after all, is about the return of the Winnipeg Jets and there wasn't a better way to bring in the New Year, hockey wise anyway, than to watch Bachman and Turner perform, especially if you didn't mind long lines for a beer.
Many fans wore Jets t-shirts of different colours. There also were sweaters that donned the names of past heroes in this city. Hawerchuk, Hull, Steen, Carlyle and Selanne were the most prominent. But also evident were Essensa, Daley, Korolev, Zhamnov and Houston. There were Canadien sweaters of Carey Price, P.K. Subban and Mike Cammalleri, too. A ragtag Bruins' No. 4 Bobby Orr was spotted. So were a Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla and a Toronto Maple Leafs' Dion Phaneuf.
"What a great day with the weather [sunny and 25 Celsius] and it's great to see all the Winnipeggers who have come out for this," said 35-year-old Jamie Hopkins, an employee of Manitoba Hydro. "This love for the Jets is something that has been building for months now. We're at the pinnacle this weekend. The game is coming and it's great to see this sort of atmosphere."
The Jets play their home opener against the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday. So the city still has to sift its ways through 48 hours more of hysteria. But thousands certainly found a way to pass the time with the NHL Face-off event at the Forks.
Fifteen years have elapsed since the Jets departed for Phoenix and then returned as the old Atlanta Thrashers franchise. How did the hockey fans in this city pass the time?
"I went to a few Moose games," Hopkins said. “The playoff atmosphere for the Moose games was okay, but the regular season didn’t cut it. I was hoping and waiting for the NHL to come back.”
Hopkins got his NHL fix by traveling south to take in a Minnesota Wild match and East to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs live.
When the Jets left, Mike Walkey tried to satisfy his NHL appetite by following the Coyotes. But he lost interest and wound up supporting the Detroit Red Wings.
“I was always a Jets fan, but I was a hockey fan, too,” said Walkey, who took in the events at the Forks on Thursday with his sister Cheryl Stewart and five-year-old nephew Montana.
“I didn’t get season tickets, but this was probably the second best way to celebrate the fact that return is finally here.”
His sister was one of the fortunate ones. She and her husband as well as three other couples had four computers going on the morning season ticket sales went up for sale. The four couples snatched a pair and split the tickets via a draft. Cheryl and her husband won’t be inside the MTS Centre on Sunday, but they received a pretty decent consolation prize. When it came their turn to draft, they took the tickets for a February game against the Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins. Hopefully for her sake, the Jets will remain in the hunt for a playoff spot come when the champs come to town.
Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd knows all about championships. Besides a world junior gold medal, he helped the Carolina Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup in his rookie season. Four years later, he played a bigger role with the Chicago Blackhawks in their spring to remember.
Ladd of Maple Ridge, B.C. has a history with Winnipeg hockey fans. He cracked the lineup of the star-studded 2005 Canadian world junior team that also housed Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Cory Perry and Jeff Carter and held its selection camp at the MTS Centre.
“I will always remember that exhibition game at the MTS Centre,” recalled Ladd. Canada beat Switzerland 5-0 before a sellout crowd and he set up Bergeron for a second-period goal.
Ladd, 25, has plenty of stories he has witnessed about the passion for the Jets. There have free meals and the hospitality the locals have exhibited to him and his teammates has been something else. One of his favourite brushes stories was the morning he was in line in a Tim Hortons drive through. When he finally got to the window, the Timmys employee informed him that the car in front had paid for his double-double.
“I think we’re used to it by now,” said the Jets captain, who was at the Forks on Thursday. “But I also think they are going to take it to another level on Sunday. Ever since they have gotten the team back we’ve seen the passion for the game and how excited they are. They have been great in all facets.
“You are always going to have a spotlight on it.”
Ladd was 11 years old when the Jets left Winnipeg at the end of the 1995-96 NHL season. He remembers watching the finale, but until he arrived here this summer he didn’t understand what the Jets mean to the city.
“I didn’t really get a grasp the importance until I got here,” he said.
“We’re definitely enjoying it right now because we haven’t lost yet. It’s been all gravey. That’s part of being in a strong market. You will get that excitement and passion from the fans, but you also will be held accountable for your play on the ice and your actions off it. I don’t mind that sort of pressure. I thrive on it.”
Can all this enthusiasm in Winnipeg propel the Jets to some wins?
“If we use it in the right way,” Ladd said. “The biggest thing is we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We need to use the energy of the crowd to our advantage and play smart."