What the NHL’s return means to Winnipeg

If you never had the privilege of attending a Stanley Cup playoff game at the old Winnipeg Arena, then it’ll be difficult for me to paint an adequate picture of the experience for you. But here goes.

What the NHL’s return means to Winnipeg
Kyle Turris #7 of the Ottawa Senators scores during the shootout against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on April 13, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Senators defeated the Penguins 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

If you never had the privilege of attending a Stanley Cup playoff game at the old Winnipeg Arena, then it’ll be difficult for me to paint an adequate picture of the experience for you. But here goes.

I attended my first playoff game in 1993, which would have made me 11 or 12 years old, depending on when the game took place that April. The Jets were playing the Vancouver Canucks, who were quickly becoming something of a rival. Teemu Selanne vs. Pavel Bure, you see.

I don’t remember much about being 12, but I will never forget walking into that old barn for the first time during a playoff white out. It was the sound. It literally shook the building. It was so loud, you had to scream at the person sitting next to you so he or she could hear what you were saying. It was so loud that, when I walked into the seating area for the first time, I didn’t realize someone was singing the national anthem until I saw the Canadian flag waving on the old Lite Brite-looking scoreboard.

On Tuesday, Winnipeg is getting a piece of its soul back. More than a few of us are getting a piece of our childhoods back, too.

At a noon press conference, commissioner Gary Bettman and the new owners of the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers, Mark Chipman and David Thomson, are expected to announce the puck will drop on NHL hockey again in the Manitoba capital next season.

What does this mean for the ‘Peg?

The Jets, and the atmosphere that surrounded their postseason tilts, were a great source of pride for the small, prairie city. Because let’s be honest, Winnipeg isn’t exactly Paris on the Red.

Until I moved to Ottawa, I didn’t really realize just how, ehm, worn Winnipeg was. When people here talked about Vanier being “the bad part of town” in Ottawa, I would kind of just chuckle to myself. My summer job in Winnipeg after my first year of university here was picking up garbage in the middle of the night in the North End, so I know a little about the bad parts of towns.

What else sucks about Winnipeg? It’s cold as hell in the winter, though many people have told me the humidity makes it feel more frigid here. It’s buggy as hell in the summer, though you kind of get used to that over time.

The secret to putting at say, Windsor golf course, is to do it fast, so the mosquitos don’t have time to execute their flight paths to every square inch of exposed skin on your body. And that’s an urban golf course next to a Superstore.

Winnipeg gets in your blood though. Maybe it’s some kind of disease those mosquitos put in your blood, but you come to love the place. People become fiercely loyal towards it. It has an underdog charm, which is one reason people loved their underdog hockey team so much.

As Thrashers and Coyotes fans and American reporters who have never actually been to Winnipeg before slamming it like to point out, the city isn’t your standard pro sports market.

The only real ‘highway’ is the Perimeter, which doesn’t even come into town. It takes about 20 minutes to drive pretty much anywhere. There aren’t any ‘skyscrapers’ downtown; The tallest building is the former CanWest Place, which tops out at 33 floors.

But it’s growing.

The city has changed so much since I left it 12 years ago, from the downtown MTS Centre, where the new team will play, to one of the finest minor league baseball stadiums you’ll ever see, to expensive new riverfront condos near the No. 1 tourist attraction and recently-named top public space in Canada, the Forks. The city’s cultural hub, the historic Exchange District, has served as the backdrop to major Hollywood films.

There are also 81,000 more potential customers living there than when the league left in 1996.

I witnessed my last playoff game (and the Jets’ last home win) in Winnipeg on April 21 that year. Seven days later, on my 15th birthday, they took the ice there for the last time, as Nikolai Khabibulin‘s heroics weren’t enough to stop the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings from taking their first round series in six games. As if being 15 isn’t bad enough.

I didn’t really watch NHL hockey for three years, until I arrived in Ottawa and took an interest in another team that was, at the time, flirting with oblivion.

Now, the NHL is robust in my new home and, against all odds, returning to my old one.

And as hockey fan, I couldn’t be happier.

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