Legends say goodbye

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 5:22 PM ET

The Swedes, Anders and Ulfie, were there. So were Goalie Bob, Eddie O and Fergie.

Dave Ellett showed up, too, 14 years after scoring one of the biggest goals in Winnipeg Arena history.

And when's the last time anybody saw Dave Babych, Thomas Steen and Pat Elyniuk in the same room together?

The Jets were back, for one day, at least. Make that two.

Yesterday's gathering -- a media session followed by a swanky dinner at ice level -- preceded the grand farewell at the Arena tonight, as the Manitoba Moose shut the place down against the farm club of the Phoenix Coyotes, of all teams.

And if the preview was any indication, the nostalgia will be dripping from the rafters.

"Walking through that security gate, it was 20 years ago I can remember walking through there for the first time as a rookie," Ellett was saying. "It doesn't seem like 20 years ago."

Ellett's a tad more grey than he was when his double-overtime slapshot gave the Jets a 3-1 stranglehold on their 1990 playoff series with the Oilers, but the memory's as pure as ever.

"I don't think the city or players had ever been so high, knowing we had the mighty Oilers down three games to one," he said. "I've run into people as far away as Scotland who said they were at that game."

Despite the fact the Jets went on to lose the series, that game might rank as the favourite Arena moment for a legion of Jets fans, but not for Ellett. His biggest thrill was when GM John Ferguson flew his family in for his first game.

It's like that for most of the local legends -- a personal memory will stand out above the rest.

Anders Hedberg, for instance, won't forget the night his good friend, curling ace Ray Turnbull, jumped down from his seat and broke his foot, all because Ulf Nilsson was beaten up by one of the WHA's goons.

Ed Olczyk, here for a bantam camp back in '81, remembers sneaking into the building as a 13-year-old to watch Team Canada play the Czechs in the Canada Cup.

Of course, we won't let him forget the promise he made 15 years later, when he told the last Jets crowd he planned to bring the Stanley Cup to town one day.

"And I meant what I said," said Olczyk, now head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "If I'm part of a team in Pittsburgh that wins the Stanley Cup, and I get my day with the Stanley Cup ... one of those days we'll have Winnipeg."

We won't hold our breath.

Besides, it wouldn't be the same.

There was something about this city and its Jets that could never be duplicated. The players could feel it, whether they skated in the '70s or the '90s.

"(The fans) had as warm a relationship with the game as I know of," Hedberg said. "They didn't come here to be entertained. They came here to care. They came here to be deeply involved in the action on the ice ... it was totally different than most other hockey fans."

Two decades later, a goalie from Toronto would discover the same thing.

"There's something to be said for small-market teams, especially a Canadian small-market team, where everybody lives and breathes hockey," Bob Essensa said. "For guys like myself ... and a lot of the ex-Jets, these were our most enjoyable times here at the Winnipeg Arena. We'll all miss it."

That's why they've come back.

Yesterday they spent a lot of time saying thanks to a city they came to love.

Tonight, you get your chance to return the favour.


Videos

Photos