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NHL Heritage Classic

Jets history to be celebrated at Heritage Classic

Former WHA team, previous NHL franchise part of hockey lore in Winnipeg

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

WINNIPEG -- Al Whalen grew up with the Winnipeg Jets. He went to games with his father and grandfather at Winnipeg Arena, watching players like Morris Lukowich and Dale Hawerchuk under the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

And then the Jets left. Thanks to economics and politics, not a lack of passion for hockey, they moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes in 1996. For 15 years, there was no NHL team, no NHL tradition to pass on.

And then the Jets came back. Technically the new version arrived when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011. Suddenly Whalen could bring up his son the way he was brought up.

And so there they were together at MTS Centre on Friday. Al, 40, and Ethan, 8, watched the Jets and Edmonton Oilers alumni at an open practice. Ethan is a Dustin Byfuglien fan, but he wore a Hawerchuk sweater too big for his body, a hand-me-down from Dad.

"It's a big deal for us," Al Whalen said. "When we lost the Jets, the whole city was brokenhearted over them going down to Phoenix. … I get to take my son to games now and show him what it was like for me growing up watching them. It's a pretty tight-knit community, and NHL hockey makes a big difference in our community for sure."

Video: SAP Stats: Oilers-Jets rivalry by the numbers

The 2016 Rogers NHL Heritage Classic Alumni Game on Saturday (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports) will not be just another alumni game. The 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2; NHL.TV) will not be just another outdoor game. Not here.

This weekend will have unique significance for Winnipeg because of the city's hockey history and the way it will be celebrated on a big stage at Investors Group Field, the new home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League.

The franchise spent the past five years establishing its brand in Winnipeg. But this event provided an impetus to reach back to the original Jets' days in the World Hockey Association (1972-79) and the original Jets' days in the NHL (1979-96) and link them to the new Jets' days in the NHL.

The MTS Centre's seats have changed from green to blue. Banners honoring the original Jets' Avco Cup championships in the WHA in 1975-76, 1977-78 and 1978-79 have risen to the rafters. So have the numbers of the "Hot Line" -- Anders Hedberg (No. 15), Bobby Hull (No. 9) and Ulf Nilsson (No. 14) -- the inaugural members of the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame. The uniforms the Jets will wear Sunday were inspired by the original Jets' WHA uniforms.

"We've been back for five years, and people are thrilled with that," Jets chairman Mark Chipman said. "But now we're connected to our history, and it feels like we're really back now. We're reenergized with our alumni. We've started our Hall of Fame now. And so now it all sort of knits together once and for all."

Video: Gretzky on upcoming Heritage Classic alumni game

In the alumni game, fans will be able to watch Mike Ford, 64, who played for the original Jets in the WHA and still lives in Winnipeg. They will be able to watch old favorites like Hawerchuk and Lukowich and Teemu Selanne and Dave Babych, not to mention their Oilers contemporaries like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and Paul Coffey.

"It's just the greatest experience of my career," Ford said. "We're all 23 years old again. Everybody feels like they're 23, acts like they're 23, talks like they're 23. It's like going back in time. … You can't walk down the street without somebody recognizing you and asking you at least one question about the game. It's so pervasive. The town is so much behind this."

In the Heritage Classic, fans will be able to watch young Jets stars like Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine against young Oilers stars like Connor McDavid and Jesse Puljujarvi. Who would have imagined this indoors just a few years ago, let alone outdoors?

"It's special," Hawerchuk said. "When the team left, all the guys that played here before, like, it took a piece of their heart away. It was so good when it came back. I know when they came back, all these guys, we were talking and communicating, everybody was so excited. Now we're all so grateful that we have this opportunity to come back. The team went away for quite a while. So you never knew if this day would ever come."

About 5,000 fans showed up for an old-timers' practice Friday in the middle of the afternoon. When Gretzky wandered near the glass, nearly an entire section stood up to take pictures. When the Oilers gathered for a team photo, nearly an entire side of the stands stood up to take pictures. Imagine what it will be like at the stadium Saturday and Sunday. Imagine the memories, those recalled, those created. Imagine the impact on kids like Ethan Whalen.

"I keep getting back to how important it is to link the past, present and future," Messier said. "I think that's the most important thing I can take out of all these outdoor games: the showcase it puts on for the fans, more importantly for the kids at home watching. They need to know the history of the game and the tradition, and I think events like this really push that."

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