Winnipeg Odyssey (Part Four of Six)

Part Four: The Boys Are Back in Town, But So Are the Habs

The roar was enormous when the team came out for warmup.  It was the same when they were announced, one by one before the opening faceoff, and gathered at the center faceoff circle, surrounding their new Jets logo.  It continued right through the national anthem, which was half-way drowned out.  Good thing, because it was kind of an oddball version of the song performed by the lead singer from Canadian group Blue Rodeo.

In fact, after a summer of anticipation and debate over what “that moment” would feel like—that one, galvanizing moment when it would be clear that this was “it,” there wasn’t any one such moment, though the person in the press box next to me said it all when he commented, “They won’t forget this date in this town.  Ever again.”  October 9th.

I was slightly disappointed.  Not that the whole thing wasn’t great.  It was.  But the run-up to puck drop wasn’t exactly played up as once-in-a-generation stuff.  There was a moving and wonderful video tribute to the past and the story of the acquisition of the team.  But there were no former stars introduced, and the immediate pre-game moments were the ones typical of any NHL regular season game, not ones of epic.

This may in part be because, despite what people in town seem to believe, as articulated by various of them to me, this team is not the Winnipeg Jets per se.  That team is still in Phoenix.  This team is the Atlanta Thrashers North, and for now at least, the history of the reborn Jets is that team’s history.  The Hull-Hedberg-Selanne history of the “real” Jets sits in boxes in Arizona, waiting until that club’s fate is determined.

Analysis aside, after all the hype, there was a hockey game to be played in Winnipeg Sunday afternoon, and the Jets stormed out, recording only one shot in the first half of the first period, but crashing toward the Montreal net at every chance.  They rolled a couple through the crease, and put a couple into Carey Price’s glove before the period ended, notably one by Dustin Byfuglien, who broke in and fired from inside the blueline.

Their early surge produced loud gasps from the gathered crowd, many of whom had team sweaters on, others of whom were wearing white shoes, wigs, and suits (shockingly past Labour Day, I know).  But there were no meaningful scoring chances.  Check that.  “Big Buff” fed a long pass to Nik Antropov, who busted in on the left side.  But he fed Price’s glove.

The crowd acted like the Montreal goalie was having a bad night, booing him and taunting him like people do Roberto Luongo when he makes mistakes in the Vancouver net.  The only trouble was, Price was stellar, and would be throughout the game.

Not outstanding, though.  He didn’t have to be.  The Jets were not effective enough with their offensive chances and pressure to make him nervous.  The period ended with the shots at 8-7 for the visitors, and they had survived three penalties to the home team’s one.

Montreal scored, too.  This goal, the only one of the period, came at just past three minutes.  Ouch.  Johnny Oduya gave the puck away right in the center of the ice at his blueline, passing it onto Michael Cammalleri’s stick.  He broke in and roofed one, a true beauty.  The crowd was not discouraged.  This was early going.

Things got no better in that frame, nor the second, when the teams skated to a 17-16 shots advantage, Jets.  But this period featured even less Jets’ offense, other than in terms of shots on goal.  They often jammed for the puck and sometimes did the opposite, shooting from the perimeter.

If there was a bright spot, it was that the nerves were gone.  During the first period, every time a Jets’ player had the puck on his stick anywhere near the net, the crowd ooed.  And the player, it was clear, saw the headlines: “Jets Return!  First Goal by [you fill in the blank]!”  By the second, it was back to hockey as usual, with the attempts less tries at being superhuman than simply tries at the net.

Problem was, Montreal was doing some trying of its own, with Tomas Plekanec capitalizing on another Jets mistake.  He also victimized Oduya, taking a puck away from him at the Winnipeg blueline and bursting in to score the Habs’ second goal.

The crowd was no less enthusiastic for this, welcoming the team back at the end of the second intermission with loud cheers.  Thing is, had any of them taken the time to analyze things, and no doubt some were, they would have realized that while they have NHL hockey again, what they don’t have is a really strong team at this stage.

Most who have commented on this matter have said that that’s OK.  This is a building process, and they got a squad that everyone knows is not outstanding.  Atlanta has been slowly gutted or whatever talent it might have once had, and Winnipeg is at the salary floor.  So for the time being, the joy in Mudville must be in having a team, rather than, exactly, in the team they have.

Things got a little better in the third period, when Nik Antropov scored what was announced as “the first goal in Winnipeg Jets history,” which kind of tells you what the team is thinking in terms of the “are we the old Jets” question.  That goal made it 2-1, and Antropov said after tha game that while it was satisfying to him to have scored, and that there was history attached to the goal, that what mattered more was the team.

He’s supposed to say that, of course, but what he added gave a glimpse inside the Jets’ room in intermission two: “We were talking between the second, I mean, all we need is just one goal, like in the exhibition game with Carolina.  We scored early enough that we had [a chance].”  He’s right: his goal came at 2:27 of the second, for anyone keeping track of such an historical mark.

He also commented on Carey Price’s good game.   The latter player got second star recognition, with Antropov getting third.  Plekanec was first star.

That 2-1 deficit quickly grew, however, with the Habs responding at around five minutes of the third, and then scoring again two minutes apart at ten and twelve minutes in.  That made it 5-1.  Still, fans cheered them off the ice, and the Jets responded with waves.

Perhaps another measure of their devotion: I went to the souvenir stands on the concourse below my seat about halfway through the third period.  There wasn’t a single other person out there.  Nobody.  Everyone was in their seat watching every move of their team.

Brian Kennedy’s book “Living the Hockey Dream” has inside information straight from the mouths of Bobby Hull and Bobby Jr. about what life was like in Winnipeg back in the WHA days. A big thank you to the Jets for making this happen for me, and to the Goossens of Winnipeg, who showed me every corner of the town and introduced me to the vibe that all residents share in these exciting days.

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