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Opening of camp intensifies hockey fever in Winnipeg

by Patrick Williams
WINNIPEG – A 15-year wait for a new era of the Winnipeg Jets officially ended for the city's ravenous hockey fans on Saturday morning.

Veteran Nik Antropov will go down in lore as the first Jets player to hit the ice at 9 a.m. as the Winnipeg team officially started training camp at the MTS Iceplex, the club's gleaming year-old practice facility. A packed building of 1,500 fans greeted Antropov -- and the teammates who followed his lead -- with unrestrained cheering and the city's ubiquitous "Go Jets Go" chant that has been breaking out at various points across the city since the team moved from Atlanta this spring.

On the ice, the club had three separate briskly paced sessions. Head coach Claude Noel's practice sessions are always lively, and the excitement that comes with the opening of training camp only quickened the pace.


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"I thought the pace was good," defenseman Dustin Byfuglien said. "Everyone is here to set an example. The pace was fast the first day. I thought the practice went well."

After each session ended, players stopped and signed autographs for the fans who stood along the pathway several rows deep, delaying foir a moment the off-ice workouts that still awaited the players.

It wasn't fans that had Jets fever, though. The media throng was impressive, as well. A pack of print media chronicled the first day's events, joined by personnel from two radio stations, the local CBC television affiliates -- both English and French -- TSN and a number of local-news outlets.

The fervor surrounding the first day of on-ice workouts only figures to intensify during the next several weeks. The first Jets NHL game in Winnipeg since April 28, 1996 is on tap for Tuesday evening when the new-look Columbus Blue Jackets visit the Manitoba capital.

The mood around the city will go up several notches next month when the Montreal Canadiens visit Winnipeg for the Jets' home-opener at MTS Centre on Oct. 9.

So, in addition to preparing the Jets for Tuesday night, the first day of training camp provided a club new to the Winnipeg hockey scene with a taste of the local passion for hockey and the NHL.

"It was awesome," said veteran goaltender Chris Mason, who is entering his first NHL season in a Canadian market. "That was pretty cool. That was a great welcome."

Mason earned headlines across Winnipeg last month when he was the first Jet to arrive in town to find housing and settle into town.

Newly re-signed defenseman Zach Bogosian, the subject of much talk in Winnipeg this summer during his contract negotiations with the Jets, took to the Winnipeg fans right away.

"I'm not used to practicing in front of a crowd like that," said Bogosian. "It's great. The fans are excited, and we're excited. It's a great day in Winnipeg."

Winnipeg never quite lost its fervor for the NHL and its Jets, whose original incarnation left for Phoenix in 1996.

"When they're screaming 'Go Jets Go,' it kind of gives you goosebumps." -- Zach Bogosian
The city served quite capably as a home to the Vancouver Canucks' American League affiliate, the Manitoba Moose, and kept its hockey passion fresh. In fact, coach Claude Noel and a vast contingent of the current Winnipeg front office and hockey operations staff have deep Moose ties.

When Commissioner Gary Bettman arrived in Winnipeg on May 31 to usher the NHL back to town, the city unleashed its pent-up passion for the NHL and the Jets. The passion has not subsided in the subsequent three months as the front office rallied to assemble the many parts needed for an NHL-caliber operation.

"You can feel it," Mason said. "I've felt it for the last three weeks here. To get on the ice is what we've all been waiting for."

Right wing Blake Wheeler spent three training camps with the Boston Bruins, so he is not at all unfamiliar with life in a passionate hockey market. But the outpouring of support from the Winnipeg fan base surprised even him.

"I've never seen a training camp like that," Wheeler admitted. "It was a pretty special day."

Bogosian, an American like Wheeler, played his junior hockey with the famed Peterborough Petes and knows what a passionate hockey market feels like. But Saturday's experience was another notch higher for Bogosian.

"When they're screaming 'Go Jets Go,'" Bogosian said, "it kind of gives you goosebumps."

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