WINNIPEG - Whether you love those dogs or hate them, the Phoenix Coyotes' run deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs is igniting heated emotions in the NHL franchise's previous home town.
In Winnipeg, plenty of hockey fans remain bitter about the Jets’ departure for the Arizona city 16 years ago. Among them, Tim Gillis and Chris Nault have reacted to the Coyotes’ post-season success this spring by setting a replica of the team’s original jersey on fire.
“This is a chance to show my affection for the Phoenix Coyotes, and the bitterness that still lies deep in me from when they departed — when they were the Jets,” Gillis, 33, told the Winnipeg Sun while friend Chris Nault used a new Jets lighter to set the jersey ablaze, creating a smoking stench.
“And this smell is just how I felt when the team departed for Phoenix.”
Gillis added he has “no reason” to cheer on the Coyotes as they head into the NHL’s Western Conference final against the Los Angeles Kings, following their playoff series wins over the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators — even if they were once Winnipeg’s franchise for 17 big-league seasons.
“No, I don’t want them to win,” he said. “I can’t support them. They crushed our souls when they left in ’96. You can’t support something that hurts you so bad.”
Nault, 34, pointed to the smelly, blackened jersey on the ground to indicate his opinion.
“There, that’s what I feel,” he said. “They left. They bailed.”
Winnipeg, however, has at least a couple of staunch Coyotes fans. Chris Mackling supports the second edition of the Jets that returned to Manitoba via Atlanta last year, though his devotion to Winnipeg’s previous NHL team — the Coyotes — runs deeper.
And he’s ecstatic about their new playoff success.
“They’re part of me. So when they left, there was never even a consideration for me that they wouldn’t still be my team,” said Mackling, who has several Coyotes jerseys and has travelled to watch them play in many cities over the years — beginning with the team’s first regular season game in Phoenix in October 1996.
The 34-year-old’s support for the Coyotes, though, hasn’t been easy. He noted that Coyotes backers appear almost extinct in Winnipeg, especially now that the city is back in The Show. And that makes him an easy target.
“I’ve gotten ridiculed more than a Leafs fan. I don’t really know any Coyotes fans, and I never got any support for it,” Mackling said. “You shouldn’t be made fun of because you’re loyal, even if it’s to a fault.”
Jay Murray is another of the few Coyotes backers in Winnipeg. He said his “hard-core” support has led him to attend about 20 of the team’s games in the past three seasons.
“I couldn’t be more proud. They’ve exceeded everyone’s expectations. If they go to the final, I’ll definitely go to Phoenix for a game,” said Murray, 25. “The Jets are second, to me. Maybe one day, they’ll be first — but not right now.”