– Winnipeg Jets
fans long ago circled Thursday night's date with the Phoenix Coyotes
on their calendars when the NHL released the 2011-12 schedule back in June.
The Coyotes played 1,338 regular-season NHL games in Winnipeg during 17 seasons before leaving for Phoenix in 1996. During the period from 1979-96, fans of the original Winnipeg Jets
ranked among the loudest in the NHL, and their playoff whiteouts in the old Winnipeg Arena became part of Stanley Cup Playoff lore. The likes of Dale Hawerchuk
, Thomas Steen
and Teemu Selanne
became stars, and jerseys sporting their names are still plentiful across the city.
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When those Jets left 15 years ago, they left a void that wasn't filled until this summer, when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg. The teams known around Winnipeg as "Jets 1.0" and "Jets 2.0" got reacquainted Thursday night as the Phoenix franchise made its first regular-season appearance in Winnipeg since leaving 15 years ago. The "new" Jets beat the Coyotes 1-0 on a first-period goal by Bryan Little
The Coyotes did play three preseason games in Winnipeg, but unlike those contests, they soon found out that they most definitely were skating in hostile territory this time.
Coyotes captain Shane Doan
is the lone remaining player from the original Winnipeg Jets
, and he made his first regular-season appearance in the city since relocating to Arizona.
"The fans here are so passionate about their team," Doan said after the Coyotes' morning skate on Thursday, "and you appreciate that as a player and love that. I'm sure that anybody that comes in here isn't going to be welcomed too much, and I'm sure we're no different."
Doan also acknowledged that there was no avoiding the organizations' shared links.
"The connection between the two is obviously there," Doan said, "and you can't deny that."
Sure enough, when goaltender Mike Smith
led the Coyotes onto the MTS Centre ice for the pregame warmup, Winnipeg fans delivered more than a few boos. Doan skated onto the ice last, and received a smattering of cheers from a crowd still filing into the building on another cold evening in downtown Winnipeg.
The packed house saved its energy for the clubs' entry onto the ice for the opening faceoff. The Jets entered first to perhaps their loudest ovation since their opening game against the Montreal Canadiens
on Oct. 9. The Coyotes' entrance received the sort of booing normally reserved for a playoff meeting with a longtime rival.
Phoenix coach Dave Tippett
started Doan on right wing alongside veteran center Daymond Langkow
and youngster Mikkel Boedker
. Earlier in the day, Tippett had predicted that once the game started it would be back to business -- and for the Coyotes, life on the road did resume once the puck dropped.
But the Winnipeg fans they booed each Phoenix touch of the puck, with Doan's touches receiving some of the more spirited jeering.
Those jeers became cheers, however, when Winnipeg center Bryan Little
fired home the rebound of an Evander Kane
for the first goal scored against the former Jets in downtown Winnipeg.
Perhaps the dynamic finally came full circle 7:37 into the game during a television timeout when the Jets welcomed Doan on the center-ice video board.
Decipherable booing broke out for a moment, with the 15,004 fans almost seemingly trying to determine exactly how they should welcome back Doan. Before long, however, the pro-Doan fans won out and rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation.
"It means a lot," Jets fan Chris McDivitt explained. "I was a kid when the Jets left and never thought they would come back. The last 15 years [with the Manitoba Moose] were great, but this is unreal."