By Stu Hackel
“It’s crazy here,” said Brett MacLean, the 22-year-old leftwinger, about his new city. MacLean has just had his first skate with the Jets, who rescued from him from the AHL on Thursday. On Sunday, he’ll be in the lineup against the Canadiens when Winnipeg begins a new era.
From every indication, it’s all Jets, all the time in the ‘Peg. Game 1 will likely be the hardest ticket in the history of the city. The Winnipeg Free Press had an item Friday that said Prime Minister Steven Harper had requested 14 tickets for his cabinet members. He was politely turned down and given a pair.
“Someone told me at school that someone sold a ticket for two grand for the opener,” said Ben Carr, a Winnipeg school teacher who was on the other end of my phone call Friday morning.
There’s no way to adequately understand what it means to the city to have the Jets back without speaking to a Winnipegger. We thought about calling Neil Young, however CBC got ahold of him first. But Carr certainly qualifies. The 25-year-old native who today teaches Grade Six recalls, “I was in Grade Six when the Jets left town and my kids now, the kids I teach, they get the team back. Full circle. Fifteen years.”
The wounds of 1996 are, more or less, healed but not forgotten. “Oh, we were all devastated,” Carr recalls. “My best friend’s dad came by our place the day I think it had been finalized and said, ‘Don’t bring up the Jets leaving to Johnny because he’s pretty upset about it.’” Carr got pretty upset himself, especially when the team threw a farewell “funeral” for itself after its final game and many former Jets returned (you can find that entire ceremony, which was televised locally, on YouTube in 10 parts, starting here).
Fast-forward through the days of the AHL Manitoba Moose and Carr finds himself and all of Winnipeg on the verge of the final chapter of a remarkable comeback story. As every Winnipegger of a certain age knows where they were when the original Jets’ announced their demise, they similarly know where they were when they heard the NHL was returning.
Carr was a substitute teacher at another Winnipeg school, his fellow teachers consumed by the possibility that a franchise would relocate north. It seemed at first as if it would be the Phoenix Coyotes, then it turned out to be the Atlanta Thrashers. “People started to talk before it became official, saying ‘What are we going to do for tickets?”What are they going to call the team?’, ‘What are the jerseys going to look like?’”
“When they actually announced it, I was teaching gym,” he recalls. “And we brought a projector down and there was about 1300 kids in that school and we threw them all in the gym and threw the projector on the wall as True North made their announcement. I think the staff were a little more excited than the kids were, but one of the teachers started the ‘Go Jets Go!’ chant and it started to go crazy.”
It’s been that way ever since. On Friday, Carr declared it Hockey Jersey Day in his classroom. All the kids wore one and he pulled out his old white Teemu Selanne Jets jersey.
“I wasn’t sure about the new logo at first,” he says. “I liked the side patch more than the central logo.”
But you really can’t tell about a logo or a jersey until you see on a player it in action. “I went to the first game against Columbus and I like it a lot,” he says. ”I think they’re very sharp.”
So do others, apparently. The town’s big licensed apparel retailer, River City Sports, sold 60 of the pro model Jets jerseys, at $300 a pop, in their first 45 minutes of business after opening their doors Saturday, Carr reports.
Like many Winnipeggers, the city that made the White Out famous, Carr has an affinity for his white Selanne jersey. That dates back to the era when NHL home teams wore white. He’s preordered the Jets’ new road white for himself. There will be all sorts of Jets jerseys at the MTS Centre for Sunday’s game, but Carr suspects that many will try to recreate the White Out, a tradition that migrated south with the original Jets to Arizona when they became the Coyotes.
The logo is just one of many things Carr believes the True North ownership group got right. “I think they’ve been phenomenal,” he says. “They did everything so brilliantly.” He rattles off all sorts of business decisions including the organization hiring people who have a connection to the region, like GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who played his junior hockey in Brandon; head coach Claude Noel, who had been bench boss of the Moose; goalie coach Wade Flahrety, who had beeen Moose netminder for three years; and Winnipeg native Derek Meech, the defenseman who played 126 games in the last four seasons with the Red Wings.
Carr thinks these moves gained the owners great credibility locally. “Winnipeggers are very nostalgic,” he states. “Winnipeggers like their own.”
The team’s name itself is another example. Despite rumors that True North wanted a new brand identity for the club — likely the Falcons (named after the local team that won the 1920 Olympic gold medal, Canada’s first in hockey) — it recognized the city’s embrace of the Jets name being restored.
“They knew they needed to give something more than just the team to the city, that there was a high demand for the name,” Carr says. “They caved a little bit on it is my guess and I think in retrospect they’re probably thinking it’s not that bad a decision. Having those ‘Go Jets Go!’ chants, it allows people to bridge the old to the new without taking anything away from the new and without losing any of the great memories they have of the old. I think it’s a pretty good compromise.”
Now, what if the team flops, which some predict it will? “I don’t think that this season that will matter,” Carr says. “The expectation, the hope, is that they’ll make the playoffs. I don’t think they’ll fall too far short of what the expectations are. I think in the first year, maybe the first couple of years, people just want hockey. We can start to be a little bit sharper in our criticism and intensify our scope of how much we are about wins and losses a little bit later. I think right now the mood is so powerful and so positive that it’s going to take a lot to take that away.”
And what is the mood?
“It’s euphoric,” he says. “It’s hockey crazy. Everywhere you go, there are those Jets things flying out of windows. There are car flags. I have a bumper sticker on my car. Every other person has a new Jets shirt or a Jets hat with the new logo. I just drove by ScotiaBank downtown and they have a big thing — they’re the official bank for the team, so on the corner of Portage and Main there’s a huge hockey puck made to look like it’s breaking glass, and a banner reading ‘The Official Home of the Winnipeg Jets.’
“There are ‘Go Jets Go!’ banners everywhere, all over the city. It’s so embedded in the culture, in the mood of the city that some political scientists have attributed the NDP’s recent electoral victory on Tuesday to the fact that the city is in such a good mood. The (CFL Blue) Bombers are doing well, the Jets have come back. I mean, people are happy here and a large part of that is because of the hockey team.”
He paused, then added, “And the weather has been great.”