WINNIPEG - How do you guarantee a warm Winnipeg reception for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman?
Trot him out along with local heroes Mark Chipman and David Thomson, the two men most responsible for bringing big-league hockey back to the city.
That’s what the Jets did for Sunday’s season-opener against the Montreal Canadiens, as Bettman joined Chipman, Thomson and Shelley Rypien, mother of the late Rick Rypien, for the ceremonial pre-game face-off.
Earlier, Bettman spoke with reporters about his reputation in the city that lost a franchise, and took 15 years to get it back.
“I don’t personalize these things,” Bettman said. “While it may have been my face that was put on it, people know I was not the least bit happy. Even the province said it was time to go.
“I’m happy to have been part of the equation (for the Jets return). But the credit goes to people here in Winnipeg without whom this wouldn’t be happening. None of this happens without Mark Chipman and David Thomson. And that’s probably the biggest difference with where we are now, coupled with the building we’re sitting in.
“As long as they’re not ignoring me. One way or the other, we’ll take the passion.”
Bettman witnessed plenty of that, Sunday, from the jammed atrium at the MTS Centre before the game to the thunderous ovation the Jets skated out to.
“The reception by the fans and the overall community has been nothing short of sensational,” he said. “We couldn’t be more pleased. It’s very gratifying. And it wasn’t unexpected.
“If you miss something terribly, which was clear from the reaction we’ve been getting over the years from the fans here, when you get it back it’s cause for celebration. We’re thrilled to be back. There was so much commentary about the need to prove the passion of the fans. We never doubted it.”
As for the Jets long-term prospects in the league’s smallest city, with its smallest arena, Bettman said he’s not at all concerned.
“We have no reason to believe anything other than that this team will be a huge success for the foreseeable future. The team’s well supported and well run by a terrific organization.”
Bettman says there’s no reason the Jets can’t someday host the all-star game or the NHL draft, an event the first incarnation of the franchise was planning to stage in the 1990s.
“The Winnipeg Jets are now a full-fledged, first-class member of the NHL,” Bettman said. “To the extent there’s interest in any of these events, that interest we’re going to take very seriously. We demonstrated that out of the box, by doing (NHL) Face-off (the festival at the Forks) here Thursday night. We’re here.”