Rachel Blount: What's a fan of Winnipeg to do? Yep: Road trip!

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2011 - 12:48 AM

Happy to have an NHL team back in Manitoba, fans celebrated with a trek down to St. Paul.

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Claude Noel smiled as he is introduced as the new coach of the Winnipeg NHL franchise -- a franchise that will have a familiar name, the Jets.

Photo: Genevieve Ross, AP

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Cam Thang had been telling his buddies that one day soon -- by 2012, he predicted -- Winnipeg was going to reclaim its NHL team. When it was announced last month that the Atlanta Thrashers would move to Winnipeg, 15 years after the Jets left for Phoenix, every one of them suddenly owed him a steak dinner.

They'll happily pay off those bets sometime this summer. Friday, Thang and three of those friends decided they had to be part of the Jets' first major move as a returning member of the league. The group drove seven hours to Xcel Energy Center for the NHL entry draft, as did dozens of other visitors from Winnipeg who chanted "Go Jets Go'' before, during and after the team selected Mark Scheifele with the seventh pick in the first round.

If the draft had been elsewhere -- Anaheim, or Nashville, or some other place holding a less intimate relationship with this sport -- the Manitobans might have passed without notice. In St. Paul, they were treated as kindred spirits. Minnesotans endured their own years in NHL exile when the North Stars left for Dallas in 1993, so when Thang's group walked through the Xcel concourse, they received a constant stream of high-fives and well-wishes.

If Friday's draft proved anything, it demonstrated once again that Minnesotans are so besotted with hockey that they will seize any occasion to celebrate it. They even gave up another great love -- a glorious summer evening -- to sit indoors and watch 30 tables of men in dark suits stake their futures on 18-year-old boys.

Canadians, of course, understand that completely. So Thang and his pals had no trouble making new friends among the thousands of fellow devotees at Xcel who can't wait for next winter to arrive.

"Lots of people have been coming up to us,'' said Thang, stopping to acknowledge another stranger who gave him a thumbs-up. "It's great. We're so happy to have our team back after 15 years, and it wasn't that bad of a drive, so we weren't going to miss this.''

The Winnipeg contingent was so thrilled to be back in the NHL fold that it even chanted the name of Commissioner Gary Bettman -- who is about as popular in Canada as a bacterial infection -- with genuine enthusiasm. A crowd of 12,404 did rain some boos upon Bettman and such Wild nemeses as Vancouver and Colorado, but puck love ruled most of the evening.

For the past several weeks, top prospects have been trotted through their paces like the pooches at Westminster, being poked and prodded during a host of tests by their potential NHL masters. Some of them make sense, such as measuring strength and aerobic capacity. Some of them don't, like the question on the psychological test that asks whether a player would rather carry a gun or write a poem. (Several admitted to picking the poem, citing a nonviolent nature at odds with their future profession.)

The scrutiny is so intense, and so public, that top pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said he lost his shyness during the process. Despite those immense efforts to project future success, the draft still is a crapshoot -- and most teams won't know what they've rolled until a few years down the road.

The majority of boys who pulled NHL jerseys over their dress shirts and ties Friday will go back to life with their college or junior or minor league teams. For some, the taste of stardom they got over the past few weeks is a precursor of what they'll experience in the NHL.

But for the faithful, draft weekend is really about hope, with little thought of the possibility of failure. Wild fans came because they wanted to be there on the day Jonas Brodin put on their team's cap for the first time. A boy and his dad in the front row, who caught the eye of Nugent-Hopkins and had their picture taken with him, want to be able to tell their friends about the day they met the next great NHL player.

Others just wanted to touch the Stanley Cup, on display in the concourse, or share the thrills of the players' nervous parents, or wear the jerseys of obscure European teams or defunct NHL clubs. Or, in the case of the travelers from Winnipeg, witness a milestone that reunited them with their hockey kin, who found heaven indoors on a gorgeous June evening.

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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