A new Jet age takes flight in Winnipeg

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2011 - 12:31 PM

Hockey-mad Winnipeg got its wish with the return of the NHL. Tonight, the Wild will get an up-close taste of a Jets party that's only beginning.

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Tony DaCosta remembers it as clearly as a Manitoba winter night.

April 28, 1996. It was a Sunday. The final NHL game in Winnipeg.

Through that winter, no matter where you went in southern Manitoba, you saw this: S.O.J. Save Our Jets. But the Winnipeg Jets were victim of an old arena, a crummy exchange rate for the Canadian dollar and a recession.

And a loss in Game 6 of a first-round playoff series against Detroit on that late April day ended the 23-year love affair for Jets fans.

DaCosta, a Winnipeg native, is the Wild's equipment manager. Back then, he was working for the Jets.

"People were bawling their eyes out," he said. "It's something I'll never forget. It was a dark day."

For the final 15 minutes of the game, the fans at old Winnipeg Arena stood and yelled. It was not a cheer, but a roar that continued after the final horn. The fans were saying goodbye. The players returned to the ice for a farewell.

And that was it.

Winnipeg was a small market -- it still has only 633,000 people -- in a league looking for big impact. The team was moving to Phoenix, but this wasn't only about the loss of a team. It was about the loss of the NHL, the most important sport in Canada, for a city with a great hockey heritage.

"That was a tough moment for the community," said Don Baizley, a long-time NHL agent and a Winnipeg native. "Most people here in Winnipeg would have told you it was over. We'll never get a team back.''

Of course, this story has a happy ending. Tuesday night, the Wild will play in Winnipeg. It will be the first time a Winnipeg team has played host to a Minnesota squad in an NHL game since Feb. 28, 1993, when the first-generation Jets beat the North Stars -- themselves fleeing to Dallas -- 7-6 behind four goals by Teemu Selanne.

Wild players and coaches will see a spectacle.

Hockey is back. There has been a party atmosphere since news of the Thrashers' move from Atlanta was announced in May. On that day, down by the waterfront in an area known as The Forks, pickup games of street hockey broke out. Season tickets were sold only in three- to five-year packages. All 13,000 seats were gone in minutes.

Hundreds of fans line up outside the MTS Centre -- which opened in 2004 and has a seating capacity of 15,000 for hockey -- for morning skates, hoping to get autographs.

When the words "true north" come up during the pregame Canadian national anthem, the crowd roars the words, a tribute to True North Entertainment, which owns the team and the arena and was responsible for getting the NHL back.

"That franchise was dying on the vine in Atlanta," said Lou Nanne, who played, coached and ran the North Stars during his career. "They'll get more fans in Winnipeg in a night than Atlanta got in a month. That is a fanatical hockey town, and they deserve this."

Hull and heritage

Winnipeg jumped into the hockey big-time when the World Hockey Association was formed in 1972.

The WHA made a splash by targeting talent from the NHL, where the average salary was about $25,000, lowest among the four North American major pro leagues. The brand-new Winnipeg Jets made the biggest splash, signing Chicago Blackhawks superstar Bobby Hull to a 10-year, $2.75 million contract.

The Jets became a super team by tapping into European talent all but snubbed by the NHL. Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson teamed with Hull to become a high-scoring line. Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Veli-Pekka Ketola became standouts in the upstart league.

"The Jets showed how you could combine the European and North American styles," former Wild assistant GM Tommy Thompson said. "When the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup, Glen Sather said he modeled his team after the Jets of the early '70s. I don't think fans realized how good they had it at the time."

The Jets won three WHA titles, including the last one, in 1979, when they bested an Oilers team featuring a high-scoring rookie named Wayne Gretzky. After that season four WHA teams -- the Jets, Oilers, New England Whalers (who were renamed the Hartford Whalers) and Quebec Nordiques -- were absorbed into the NHL.

After early struggles in the NHL, the Jets, led by Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, became regular playoff qualifiers. But playing in the same division as Edmonton and Calgary made things tough. And trouble was coming. The NHL was expanding, costs and salaries were rising.

With no new arena coming and no local buyer stepping forward, the team was sold to American businessmen Steven Gluckstern and Richard Burke. They originally planned to move the team to Minnesota to fill the void created when the North Stars moved to Dallas. But the Jets ultimately ended up in Phoenix and became the Coyotes.

DaCosta made the move with the team. But he was well aware of the devastation the move left behind.

"Their population went down," DaCosta said. "A lot of young people left. Winnipeg wasn't a major league city any more. The identity of the city was gone."

The long road back

Help in getting the NHL back came in the form of Mark Chipman and David Thomson.

Chipman, a lawyer and Winnipeg native, helped form True North Sports & Entertainment in 2001 with simple goals: Build a downtown arena, revive the city's core and, maybe, get an NHL team back. Chipman already owned the Manitoba Moose, a minor league team he lured from St. Paul.

By 2004 the MTS Centre was finished, built for $133.5 million on land acquired from a real estate firm owned by Thomson, a Toronto billionaire who got a minority share in True North in exchange for the land. The rink was 70 percent privately financed.

By 2007 Chipman was making presentations about bringing the NHL to Winnipeg through relocation or expansion. For a while, it seemed the Coyotes would be a logical team to move, but True North eventually drew a bead on the Thrashers. On May 31, that deal was announced.

The NHL has been back in Minnesota for more than a decade. So fans who mourned the loss of the North Stars probably can understand the emotion. Then again, maybe not. Hockey is a near-religion in Canada. And in Winnipeg, it is the main event.

When the Jets played their first home exhibition game the fans were in regular-season form.

"It's almost like 15 years of vented emotion -- I don't know if it's anger or whatever," coach Claude Noel said after listening to the crowd sing "O Canada" before the game. "It just gave you goosebumps, like everybody was singing. It was beautiful."

The Prime Minister was there for the regular-season opener, when a commemorative 50-cent Canadian coin was unveiled.

"This is not unlike Minnesota," Baizley said. "You lost the North Stars, then got the Wild back. The intensity of the building when the Wild first came back, I just marveled at that. And now you're seeing that here. It's tremendous. There is so much intensity in this building."

Winnipeg is revitalized. A new airport in October. A new stadium for the Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League is being built, as is a $310 million Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

"There are a whole lot of things that are badges of honor for this community," Baizley said. "What has topped all of that off is the NHL coming back."

Of course, the weather still is daunting.

Former North Stars defenseman Brad Maxwell played a lot of games in Winnipeg. He has two strong memories: "It was colder than hell, but a great place for hockey," he said.

"My son Sean just graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and his girlfriend works for the Jets. The fans there are incredible."

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