WINNIPEG - The rumours had been out there almost since the original Winnipeg Jets departed for the desert at the end of the 1995-96 season and only picked up steam after a new downtown arena opened in November 2005.
On May 31, when Mark Chipman stepped to a podium at the MTS Centre to announce his purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers, the dream many Manitobans shared for so many years finally became a reality.
As is his style, Chipman and the folks at True North had done their due diligence and quietly let it be known at NHL headquarters that they were interested in pursuing a team and relocating it to Winnipeg.
While the Phoenix Coyotes were the most likely candidate, the target eventually moved to the Thrashers and the transaction closed rather quickly.
Even prior to the official announcement, an impromptu celebration broke out at Portage and Main after a national newspaper article proclaimed the deal to bring the NHL back to Winnipeg was complete.
Sensing it would be neat to get a pulse on the masses, we made our way to take in the scene and it was truly something to behold.
A multitude of fans had already thrown on their Jets memorabilia and were chanting profusely.
Some carried signs, while others were simply happy to relish the moment itself.
In a true sign of Canadiana, a street hockey game broke out with a crushed beer can used as a puck.
The revelry was intense and that spirit only heightened as things moved along throughout the summer.
Almost immediately, one-time Thrashers’ players spoke glowingly about what it meant to be going to a hockey market and a place they would be revered and treated like rock stars.
Next up was the drive to 13,000, the ticket sales push that would show NHL governors that hockey fans in Manitoba would actually reach into their pockets and make a long-term commitment to the team by purchasing season tickets for three to five years.
Some wondered how long it would take to reach the goal. A few days? A week?
Reaching the goal was really a matter of when, but few thought it could be done in a matter of minutes.
While the official time was 17 minutes to process, there wasn’t any inventory left after two minutes, so thousands of hockey fans were unable to secure a seat and a waiting list of 8,000 was quickly established.
It wasn’t enough that an NHL team was coming back though, as the great name debate began shortly thereafter.
Many wanted the return of the NHL to represent a fresh start and bring with it a brand new name.
Others thought it might be appropriate to keep the Moose name alive.
Some folks even threatened to boycott the team if the Jets name wasn’t restored.
Ultimately, all options were considered and True North went with Jets — with the announcement coming at the NHL Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn.
After the name was official, the next landmark event came with the unveiling of the logo at 17 Wing.
This was a big-time production as players stepped out of a plane to showcase the new logo and uniforms.
Pretty breathtaking stuff, not the kind of thing you see with any regularity.
Not surprisingly, some folks were opposed to the military connection found on the primary and secondary logos.
The uproar didn’t last long as fans flocked to the stores and purchased copious amounts of memorabilia.
Then it was finally time for the season opener against the fabled Montreal Canadiens.
Oct. 9 was a date many had circled on their calendars for months and when the day finally arrived, it was an emotional scene for those fortunate enough to secure a ticket.
The buzz outside the rink was sensational throughout the afternoon and, as fans waited for the doors to open, they serenaded commissioner Gary Bettman by chanting his name as he entered the building for a radio interview.
The arena was jammed for the warm-up and most — if not all — fans were on their feet, basking in the afterglow.
A chilling pre-game video was shown, saluting the history of hockey in this city and a celebration of the return itself.
When the national anthem was played, fans showed their appreciation for the ownership group by belting out the words True North during the national anthem — starting a new tradition and tipping their collective caps to the folks who brought NHL hockey back.
The game didn’t go as the home side had hoped, but fans rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation during the final minute as the Jets fell 5-1.
NHL hockey is back in Winnipeg and that’s something folks around these parts will be celebrating for years to come.