Winnipeg Jets: QMI Agency Canadian Team of the Year

Jets players salute the crowd prior to playing against the Canadiens at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg,...

Jets players salute the crowd prior to playing against the Canadiens at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Man., Oct. 9, 2011. (BRIAN DONOGH/QMI Agency)

DAVE POLLARD, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:54 PM ET

When the National Hockey League returned to Winnipeg last spring after a 15-year absence, it started a love-in across Manitoba.

Maybe even the entire country.

Allegiances were abandoned in places like Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal, albeit temporarily, as the entire nation celebrated the return of its prodigal son -- Canada's seventh NHL franchise. No question the biggest party was held in Winnipeg, a city in need of something special to happen, but the tentacles of excitement spread past the Manitoba borders.

The Winnipeg Jets -- as the relocated Atlanta Thrashers eventually were renamed -- were back, baby. Take that, Phoenix!

Other teams might have had more success this year -- the Jets, version 2.0, have played only 33 games for Pete's sake -- but none had a bigger impact on the collective psyche of this country in 2011. If it wasn't already obvious, hockey is king in Canada so the return of the game to its rightful home made the Jets one of the biggest stories of the past 12 months.

"I'm not as surprised now but if you'd have told me this six months ago I wouldn't have thought it would be as big a story around the country," True North chairman Mark Chipman told QMI this week. "I'm surprised by that. Pleasantly surprised, I really am. It's humbling to be honest with you. I'm not trying to be overly modest about it (but) I didn't anticipate it would be covered or talked about as broadly across the country as it has.

"Certainly we expected people to be very excited, but I can't tell you we fully contemplated or thought about the extent of the response. Even if I had, I don't think we would have imagined it to be anything like the way it has been."

When the Winnipeg NHL franchise officially was reborn May 31, when league commissioner Gary Bettman introduced True North Sports and Entertainment as the new owner of the team formerly known as the Thrashers, it became apparent the natural choice for QMI Agency's team of the year would be the Jets. With all due respect to the Grey Cup-champion B.C. Lions and the Memorial Cup-winning Saint John Sea Dogs, two other worthy candidates for the award, it wasn't even close.

• • •

For the rest of Canada to fully understand how much it means to Winnipeggers to have the NHL back in town, why the city has embraced the Jets the was it has, we need to go back to 1996 when the original Jets pulled up stakes and headed to the desert, where they became the Phoenix Coyotes.

We also need to understand how Winnipeggers, Manitobans even, think of themselves. It's best left to Chipman, a Winnipeg native who has been a prominent businessman in the city since the late 1980s, to explain.

"I'm not sure I can," Chipman said. "It would be at least one part the result of the sense of loss that occurred when the team left (in 1996). It ran real deep. Maybe even more so than anybody even tried to explain back then. Related to that is Winnipeg has been a community that has had to fend for itself, in our generation at least. When I was a kid, it was the fourth-largest city in Canada. It long ago lost that status and a lot of people left.

"As a friend of mine very accurately stated once, the community is a result of a collective act of will. We've kind of willed ourselves along over several generations. When you kind of have to kick and scratch and scrap for everything that you have ... I think people out here feel that way. They don't feel they are hard-done by but we are the product of our own act of will."

Winnipeg, a city sometimes in the East (think CFL) but clearly defined in the rest of Canada as in the West and located geographically smack-dab in the middle of Canada, needed to get its act together if it ever wanted the NHL to return. The city rebounded economically and, proving pipe dreams do sometimes come true, the NHL eventually followed.

"The community has really diversified itself and grown and it has done so very much since the Jets left," Chipman said. "It really hunkered down and instead of crying about it, the community really dug deep. If they hadn't and we didn't have the level of prosperity since the team left, I don't know if we would have been able to get the team back."

• • •

To those of us outside True North's inner circle, the purchase of the Thrashers and subsequent move to Winnipeg happened practically overnight.

The struggling Phoenix franchise, under NHL ownership since 2009 after Jerry Moyes declared bankruptcy, was thought to be the target of the Winnipeg group, which included money-man David Thomson. It was logical to think the Coyotes would wind back in their original home but instead it was the Thrashers who flew north.

And it didn't happen overnight.

After the Jets left, Chipman bought the Minnesota Moose of the now-defunct International Hockey League and moved them to Winnipeg. The Moose joined the American Hockey League in 2001 when the IHL went under. Three years later, the team took up residence in the new arena now known as the MTS Centre.

But the real goal was to bring NHL hockey back to the city. After the NHL lockout in 2004-05, True North ramped up its efforts to entice the NHL but it wasn't for another two years that the group would get the chance to plead its case.

"In '07 we got a chance to make a presentation to their executive committee," Chipman said. "After that it wasn't like we were working on it every day but it was an open and active file that we tinkered with and worked on and investigated. It was the building and the new economic model that caused us to think it was possible. Hockey is a small world. I got to know the commissioner through my dealings with the American Hockey League and prior to that the International Hockey League so I made my intentions, or my hopes, known to him."

It took four more years for True North to grind away, but in May the deal for the Thrashers was finalized for a reported $170 million. At the end of the month in a hastily called press conference at the MTS Centre, Bettman started a party 15 years in the making when he announced the NHL would be returning to Winnipeg.

In June, season tickets sold out in minutes, a clear sign the city's love affair with the NHL had been rekindled. An impassioned argument was made for the franchise to revive the Jets name -- impromptu chants of "Go Jets Go" often broke out at gatherings -- and a buzz built around the city. A buzz that still hasn't subsided.

"We (Canadians) are wildly passionate about this game," Chipman said. "Somebody once said we're a country of 30 million general managers, all with the birthright to opine on the game of hockey. And that's great. That would explain (it).

"I think it's a real just reward. (The community) has always had a deep sense of pride. Now it's a way for the community to celebrate and to show that sense of pride."

• • •

Chipman now fully understands how much his franchise means to Winnipeggers and Manitobans. Even the rest of Canada.

But it wasn't always that way. As True North quietly worked through the process of acquiring an NHL team, Chipman had to measure the impact it would have on people's lives.

Now, how could he miss it? There are signs all around him.

"Early on we were so bunkered down doing it, we didn't get a real good sense of how the community felt but, man, you can't take five paces now without being reminded about it somehow," Chipman said. "We sold, I don't know, 20,000 (Jets) licence plates this week. You can't pump gas without somebody saying, 'Hey, congratulations,' or saying thanks. It's just incredible.

"If I had to sum it up, the thing I'm most happy about is how happy people are. To feel the energy in our building, or to see it in the form of people walking around in T-shirts and hoodies on, I'm just very pleased that people are as happy as they are about this."


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