Manitoba embraces 'our' team

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:04 AM ET

They came wearing their Team Canada jerseys, current and vintage, waving flags and cheering their lungs out.

For the second time in three days, a standing-room only crowd of more than 15,000 strong showed up at the new downtown rink for an exhibition game yesterday, this time between Canada and a badly overmatched Swiss team.

And as the horn sounded on a 5-0 Canadian victory, a standing ovation rained down on our juniors, who responded with a salute of their sticks, capping two weeks of hockey fervour this town hasn't seen since the 1999 World Junior Championship.

I think Winnipeg likes its world juniors.

Check that. Manitoba absolutely loves them.

Because this grand sendoff will continue outside the perimeter today, as our country's gold-medal hopefuls hop a bus and head down Hwy. 75 toward the U.S. border, and a date with destiny.

Half the town of Morris will be waiting for that Team Canada bus, and they don't plan to let it through without stopping.

Apparently a minus-45 wind-chill factor is no match for the Team Canada factor.

"We've got fire trucks, we've got everything to stop them," hockey fan Glen Munford said from the community last night, where he was busy getting a few more autographs on a Canadian flag he's been lugging around the last few days. "Everybody's pumped. We're going to put a bonfire up, and the thermoses will be full of hot chocolate and coffee."

Munford and a buddy of his were the ones who came up with the idea of an impromptu rally in Morris, as the Canadian juniors head for on their way to Grand Forks, N.D.

At the last day of school yesterday, the local principal got on the PA system and reminded everybody to be at the Catholic Church parking lot this afternoon.

Every kid got a note, too: bring your mitts, toques and parkas, but most importantly, don't forget your Canadian flags!

Munford will be bringing one with a few hundred kids' signatures on it, and he'll present it to the players. Assuming the bus stops.

"One kid, he'd push the crosswalk button every five seconds to stop that bus," he said.

Morris isn't the only town mad about the Maple Leaf, and the teenagers who'll wear it down south.

Last night's crowd was sprinkled with Winnipeggers and rural Manitobans alike, all attracted by the irresistible combination of youth, innocence and patriotism.

"They are up-and-coming players, playing for the love of the game," said Winnipeg's Ernie Morrissette, who brought his seven-year-old daughter Autumn to her first hockey game. "It's a great Christmas tradition."

In a nearby section, 17-year-old Mario Champagne came in from St. Anne, wearing the vintage Winnipeg Falcons jersey from the 1920 Olympics.

His buddies gave him the jersey as a present, while his uncle brought him to last night's game.

Asked what's special about the world juniors, Champagne didn't waste words.

"It's for Canada," he said.

"It's also future stars," Champagne's uncle, Philippe, said. "You can take a look at Sidney Crosby, and there's a lot of local boys."

One of them, goalie Rejean Beauchemin of St. Boniface, recorded the shutout last night.

But you get the impression this team would pack the joint even without a 'Toban on it.

"The people of Winnipeg and Manitoba have embraced the whole thing," Manitoba Moose GM Craig Heisinger said. "The fans should be commended. They came out in droves." And don't think the folks at Hockey Canada didn't notice.

"We've never played a pre-tournament game with more than 10,000 people," Denis Hainault said.

And they've probably never had to deal with a highway blockade, either.

Enjoy the trip, boys.

See you in Grand Forks.


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