WINNIPEG - The spontaneous mass display of jubilation that erupted at Canada’s most famous street corner Thursday night wasn’t the least bit surprising.
It was an emotional outburst that had been building for a decade and a half, gaining momentum each year and finally bubbling over in a joy-drenched scene at Portage and Main.
Winnipeg hockey fans have been dreaming about hearing this kind of news for years and when that beautiful music finally met their ears they were quick to turn downtown Winnipeg into Hoop and Holler Bend.
When a report first surfaced Thursday that the deal to move the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg was done, fans decided to throw skepticism to the wind and start the party. It didn’t matter that the NHL and the purported purchasers of the Thrashers, Winnipeg’s True North Sports and Entertainment, were denying the report.
This is what the people want to believe.
And it looks like it’s no fairy tale.
The Winnipeg Sun confirmed Friday that an agreement in principle has indeed been reached, pending paperwork and a rubber stamp from the NHL.
So there they were, dressed in their Winnipeg Jets colours, waving flags, chanting the familiar “Go Jets Go” refrain that has been heard so many times over the years, even with the team itself in exile.
It was a celebration the long-suffering fans of this city richly deserved
These were the same fans — or at least the children of fans — who suffered through a death in the family when their beloved Jets flew south to Phoenix back in 1996.
They are fans who broke open their piggy banks as little kids to try to raise money to keep the Winnipeg Jets in town. They are fans who felt a huge part of the fabric of their community ripped out when the Jets were sold and ushered out of town. They shed tears, mourned if you will, and spent years developing an inferiority complex that comes with a city losing its one and only major league sports franchise and a large piece of its identity in one fell swoop.
For almost a decade after the Jets left in 1996 there was little hope the NHL would ever return and for years there were far more naysayers than believers.
It all started to change in 2004 when the MTS Centre opened in downtown Winnipeg and the old beloved arena on Maroons Road was imploded.
Suddenly the city had an NHL-calibre arena, built to generate revenue. Not long after, the NHL had a salary cap at the end of a long labour dispute, as well as revenue sharing and a much improved stream of TV money. Even the once-hapless Canadian dollar was on the climb, heading toward parity.
Most importantly, the city had a deep-pocketed citizen (Manitoba Moose and True North Sports and Entertainment owner Mark Chipman) who expressed interest in bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg and vowed to quietly pursue the dream.
When it was announced Chipman had a business partner named David Thomson, Canada’s richest man no less, the people truly started to believe the unbelievable.
All they needed then was a team to become available and the growing number of believers focused their attention on the Phoenix Coyotes, only to be strung along for two years while the NHL played a pawn game with the City of Glendale and eventually agreed to back-to-back stalemates.
That roller-coaster ride tore into the fragile psyche of Winnipeg fans, who hung on every word in a long and drawn out battle in the Arizona desert, only to be left at the altar once again by the NHL.
But there was a new love interest on the horizon — or perhaps one that had been there all along, getting little or no attention — and this one seemed much more eager to consummate the relationship.
Just a couple of weeks after Winnipeg turned its collective attention to the Atlanta Thrashers, it appears the city and the team are ready to jump into a potential marriage made in heaven.
This is a moment for all you believers out there.
And it’s a chance for you to say three little words to all those people who said it would never happen.
Told you so.