New heroes for next generation of fans

 Doug Lunney, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:18 AM ET

The game was long over, but many of the teary-eyed Jets fans who filled the Winnipeg Arena refused to leave.

The sight of them -- wearing their white shirts and jerseys, clinging to their signs and each other as the players waved farewell before disappearing under the tunnel to the dressing room -- is what I remember most about covering the last Jets game on April 28, 1996 for the Winnipeg Sun.

It was a sombre feeling in the press box as well. I had only been with the Sun for several months, but had already come to know a lot of other media and arena staff. We looked around at each other realizing that -- unless we left Winnipeg as well -- this was the last time we'd be covering the NHL.

After all, the so-called experts had repeatedly scoffed at the notion the NHL would ever come back to Winnipeg. 

"Stop dreaming and get over it," they would insist. "The NHL will never return to a small market like Winnipeg. The game at the NHL level has outgrown cities like ours."

There would be no more coming to the rink in the morning for practice, pressing coaches and players for something better than "we've got to come together as a team," before eventually giving up and going to the likes of Dave Manson and Kris King for something with a little colour.

As one of the three reporters covering the Jets for the Sun that last game, it was my job to head to the Red Wings dressing room for post-game comments after they'd dispatched the Jets 4-1 in Game 6 of the first round.

I went straight for Scotty Bowman. I can still see his face as he sat back when asked about being part of hockey history in Winnipeg.

The most successful coach in NHL history had an engaging grin, possibly because he was relieved his heavily favoured Wings had put away the stubborn Jets, as he talked of how he'd come to the Arena in days of the WHA. At that time, Bowman was in the midst of coaching the NHL's most feared franchise in Montreal, but he spoke of great admiration for the Jets and revealed he'd once hoped to lure away defenceman Lars Erik Sjoberg.

I'm not exaggerating when I say it was an honour to be able to cover the NHL in the city I grew up in, as brief as it was. Like most hockey-crazed kids in Winnipeg, we knew the members of the media as well as we knew the players. So forgive me if I was little star struck the first time I was in the press box and renowned hockey writer Al Strachan walked by.

I remembered thinking during that last game in April 1996 about what a huge influence the Jets, both in the WHA and NHL, meant to me growing up. I was a new dad at the time and I felt terrible that kids in Winnipeg wouldn't be able to share the same experience.

I mean Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg -- two thirds of what we believed was the greatest line in hockey -- once came to a pancake breakfast at my home community club in Bronx Park. And Bobby Hull, yes the Golden Jet, would show up at the odd game when I'd play against his son Brett.

We all played a little better when Bobby was in the stands -- not that he ever saw us because he'd be busy signing an autograph for every kid in the rink.

Thank goodness that despite being told it would never happen again in River City, the dreamers never stopped dreaming and the NHL is coming back to Winnipeg, where new heroes will be born for our next generation of fans. 


Videos

Photos