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In Winnipeg, calm exterior belies great excitement

Tuesday, 06.21.2011 / 11:13 PM / Winnipeg NHL Franchise

By Patrick Williams - NHL.com Correspondent

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In Winnipeg, calm exterior belies great excitement
When the move of the Atlanta franchise to Winnipeg was officially and unanimously approved by the NHL Board of Governors on Tuesday, the team's braintrust and fans mostly took the news in stride.
WINNIPEG -- Winnipeg and its new NHL club would love to celebrate the seemingly daily announcements, but the braintrust is too buried in work at the moment to pause for celebration.

Major announcements have bombarded Winnipeg over the past three weeks, so residents could be excused for taking them in stride by now. Three weeks ago, boisterous gatherings across Winnipeg greeted the news that the NHL intended to return to Manitoba.

On Tuesday, when the League Board of Governors approved the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg-based True North Sports and Entertainment, the hockey club and Winnipeggers calmly checked off another task on the civic to-do list.

"I think the fans took their cue from us," said Scott Brown, director of corporate communications and hockey operations for True North Sports and Entertainment.

Of course, over the past three weeks hockey fans in the province have received word of a new team, posted 13,000 season-ticket deposits, filled another 8,000 spots on a season-ticket waiting list, acquired a new management team in Kevin Cheveldayoff and Craig Heisinger, and learned the locale of the club's new American Hockey League affiliate.

"I think the fans, they did their part with the drive to 13,000. It was framed that the Winnipeg public had to step up and prove [its fervor with action]," Brown said. "I think they did that in dramatic fashion."

So, unlike three weeks ago, Tuesday's announcement did not lead to mass celebrations at Portage and Main, Winnipeg's famous downtown meeting spot. That calm extended to the hockey club's front office, where in addition to the much-documented talk surrounding the club's upcoming announcements on a team name and head coach, there are countless other tasks underway. Improvements to the MTS Centre, broadcasting agreements, training camp preparations and the free-agency season rank among the many tasks awaiting completion.

"It was very much business as usual," Brown said. "I don't think that too many of us in the office have taken time to digest what was really going on. "

All in a day's work for Winnipeg, although the enormity of officially ending a 5,532-day wait for an NHL club cannot be overstated. Nearly each day sees another small sign that Winnipeg's aspirations are now reality. The club's new website (winnipeg.nhl.com) went live on Tuesday afternoon, the latest step toward opening night in October.

"This is another sign that this is really happening," Brown said.

Winnipeggers are echoing NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's sentiments. Carol Vermeer's days supporting Winnipeg hockey go back to the Jets' 1970s glory days.

"I'm very pleased with our ownership. I have a lot of confidence in them based on how they ran the [American Hockey League's Manitoba] Moose," Vermeer said.

And to be frank, behind Tuesday's cool and laid-back civic exterior, Winnipeg hockey fans are struggling to contain their excitement.

Jared Clinton is 21 years old now, but he can recall seeing his first and only NHL game in Winnipeg as a 6-year-old. For Clinton and other hockey fans in Manitoba, the Moose satisfied the city's taste for live hockey and bridged the 15-year gap between the Jets and the new NHL franchise.

"It's almost impossible to believe," Clinton said on Tuesday after Winnipeg officially joined the NHL fraternity. "To hear the words ‘Winnipeg' and ‘NHL team' in the same sentence is almost surreal. This city is going to embrace it, support it, and will easily become one of the premiere hockey cities in the entire League."

Winnipeg's last entry in the NHL served as a focal point for Manitoba's sports culture. For Janice Labossiere, who grew up 90 minutes north of Winnipeg, the NHL's return takes her back to the Winnipeg's hockey days of old.

"I grew up with the Winnipeg Jets -- I was born just after their first season in the NHL," Labossiere recalled. "My childhood is full of memories of watching Gretzky, Lemieux, Lafleur and the like playing at the Winnipeg Arena. I was very lucky in that even though we lived [far] north of Winnipeg, my dad was a huge hockey fan and ensured his two daughters saw the greats play in person when they came to town."

After the Jets' departure, Labossiere did not expect to see the NHL's return. But the 2004 opening of the NHL-caliber 15,003-seat MTS Centre and the League's institution of the salary cap began to sway her thinking.

"Times have changed, and I couldn't be happier," Labossiere said.

Winnipeg's hockey operations staff will have little time to bask in its newfound League membership. The club is slated to select seventh in Friday's Entry Draft in St. Paul, Minn. But hockey fans across Manitoba can afford some time to revel in the excitement and promise of this new chapter.

"To know that a brand new generation of fans will get to watch their first NHL game in Winnipeg, just as I did 15 years ago, puts a smile on my face," Clinton said. "This city is hockey crazy, and if 15 years of supporting the Manitoba Moose with such enthusiasm has shown anything, it is that Winnipeg's hockey fans are among the best in the world."

For Labossiere, too, Tuesday's news is still surreal.

"Even though the big announcement was three weeks ago and the [board of governors] made it official today, I still don't believe the NHL is truly back in Winnipeg," she said. "It feels like a crazy dream and probably won't hit me until the puck drops for the first regular season game."
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