NHL's return a day to celebrate

Andy Hall joins his fellow Jets fans in the middle of Main Street Thursday night. Hundreds of...

Andy Hall joins his fellow Jets fans in the middle of Main Street Thursday night. Hundreds of Winnipeggers gathered at the intersection of Portage and Main on May 19. (STEPHEN RIPLEY/QMI AGENCY)

TED WYMAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:51 PM ET

It would be a stretch to say I was a Winnipeg Jets fan since birth because the team didn't actually come into existence until I was six.

But it's fair to say I spent most of my formative years living and breathing Winnipeg's professional hockey team.

The Winnipeg Jets were in my life almost every single day growing up. If I wasn't watching them at the old Winnipeg Arena, I was thinking about them, pretending to be them with a stick and a ball out on the front street, on the local rink or even in the living room, channelling Friar Nicholson or Curt Kielback, falling asleep listening about them on the radio and waking up the same way.

We were a Jets family and we had season tickets from the very beginning. We worshipped Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson, Willy Lindstrom, Lars-Erik Sjoberg and anyone else who wore the colours during the wild WHA years. And we were rewarded with three championships and a team that gained international fame for its multi-cultural mosaic and its success playing tournaments and friendlies against powerhouses like the Russian and Czech national teams.

On a trip to Europe we once met some people from Sweden on a train and were impressed that they had heard of our hometown. Why? Because they knew of the Jets. The team put our city on the world map.

At the time there were no other teams in North America that could boast such international pedigree, with so many players from around the world and even the honour of being the only club team to beat the storied Russians.

We celebrated when the Jets joined the NHL and persevered through some incredibly lean years brought on by the league's dismantling of a WHA powerhouse in the expansion draft.

We were there when Willy Lindstrom scored to end an unmerciful 30-game winless streak and we danced in the aisles like it was a Stanley Cup winner.

We were there for the only playoff series clincher on home ice, a drubbing of the Calgary Flames in 1987.

We were there when Dave Ellett scored his famous double overtime goal that gave us hope that for once the Jets would vanquish the mighty Oilers.

We were there for plenty of bad times, watching the hated Oilers and their stable of stars march past our team every year in the playoffs, on the way to Stanley Cup glory, including that fateful comeback after Ellett's celebrated goal.

In the early '90s I moved away from Winnipeg to become a sportswriter but watched with joy from afar as Teemu Selanne set the league on fire as a rookie and watched with angst as rumblings about the team leaving town started to surface.

I sent cash to help try to save the team and eventually suffered heartbreak when the decision was finally made to relocate to Phoenix.

I know I'm not alone when I say the team leaving Winnipeg was like a death in the family. Not having the Jets left a huge void.

The team and the iconic Jets logo were huge parts of our city's identity and it gave us major league status, but more than that it afforded hockey fans of all ages a team in which to pour their passions, to worship, to dream about.

We  tried to develop an interest in other NHL teams, even went to a couple of Coyotes games in Western Canada, but it was never the same and for a long while it was hard to even watch the games.

We watched with sadness as our second home, the Winnipeg Arena, was torn down, with quiet hope as the MTS Centre went up and with admiration as the Manitoba Moose did their best to fill the local void.

Today, in my role as sports editor of the Sun, I see professional hockey from a different, perhaps more jaded angle, but I have been convinced since my return to the city in 2003 that we are ready to be a major league sports town again.

I admit, I dared to dream the day would come when NHL hockey would return and today that fantasy has been fulfilled, thanks to another dreamer named Mark Chipman and True North Sports and Entertainment.

The reason I regaled you with all those childhood memories of life with a professional hockey team was to show how much it meant to me, my family, and thousands of other families just like mine.

For so many of us, this is the greatest day Winnipeg has had in decades.

A day we once thought would never come.

A day to celebrate heartily.


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