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Sunday Long Read: Jets lift spirits of Winnipeg

by Tal Pinchevsky

Thomas Steen skated onto the ice at Winnipeg Arena to a noise with an intensity he had rarely heard in his life.

The one-time captain of the Winnipeg Jets, on the eve of retirement from the NHL, had been called out onto the ice by Don Cherry, the CBC commentator, as part of a farewell ceremony for the team on May 6, 1995. It came days after the season ended and shortly after the announcement the organization was being relocated to Arizona, where it would begin life as the Phoenix Coyotes in the 1996-97 season.

Steen, clad in jeans and his white No. 25 Winnipeg Jets jersey, skated to center ice and listened as Cherry began a series of speeches -- eulogies, really -- for the Jets, the only North American team Steen had known.

Steen wiped repeatedly at his eyes, unsuccessfully fighting back tears, as Cherry lauded the fans for the passion they exhibited for the game and for their team.

Later that night, Steen would engage in a group hug with his soon-to-be former Jets teammates as his No. 25 was raised to the rafters, a fitting testimonial to a 14-year career with the organization.

Yet as touching as each of those moments was, they weren't the most emotional for Steen during the 24 hours surrounding the farewell ceremony.

Former Jets captain Thomas Steen's emotions encapsulate the love affair between Winnipeg and the Jets. (Photo: Getty Images)

The previous night, Steen was at dinner and became so distraught by the thought of the team being relocated that he collapsed at the restaurant and was rushed to the hospital.

Steen's breakdown, as much as any of the poignant moments that followed in the farewell ceremony the next night or the long goodbyes conducted throughout the next season, encapsulates the love affair between the city and the Jets.

That love affair was rekindled in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers announced the organization was moving to Winnipeg to become the second iteration of the Jets for the start of the 2011-12 season.

Now, this edition of the Jets is in its third season, again adored by the city despite a record that has yet to produce a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The bond between the city and its team came into even further focus Saturday when Jonathan Toews, one of Winnipeg's most favored sons, played an NHL game in the city for the first time with the Chicago Blackhawks visiting MTS Centre, the replacement for the Winnipeg Arena that housed the old-edition Jets.

To understand the immediacy and intensity with which the current-day Jets were greeted upon their return, it is necessary to understand the loss the city suffered.

The Long Goodbye

"Welcome to Winnipeg Arena, the home of the Winnipeg Jets."

On the night of the great goodbye, those were the opening words from Bob Irving, who had been covering Winnipeg sports since 1973.

A simple statement was all it took for the fans, attired in the famous "Sea of White," to erupt in a deafening cheer that would ebb and flow throughout the ceremony but rarely disappear.

It was all part of the mourning process for Winnipeggers on the night of May 6. After several months and numerous efforts to find an ownership group to keep the Jets in Winnipeg and build a new arena, the franchise had exhausted its options. It was destined to leave the city it called home since joining the World Hockey Association in 1972.

After one more lame-duck season as the Jets, the franchise moved south and became the Coyotes.

"It was a memory that I think anybody that was in the building, especially us being part of the team, won't forget ever. It was a real difficult year," said Kris King, an alternate captain for the Jets at the time. King is the NHL's vice president of hockey operations. "For us, it was easy to say you loved playing in Winnipeg. For people outside, they never really got it. There wasn't a better place in my 15-year career that I played."

NHL vice president of hockey operations and former Jets alternate captain Kris King believed there wasn't a better place in the NHL than Winnipeg. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sad as the event may have been, it was intended as a celebration for all the moments the team provided the city.

Former Jets, including longtime captain Alvin "Ab" McDonald, made presentations. One of the loudest cheers was reserved for brothers Michael Dandenault and Mark Dandenault, who months earlier launched the Blue Ribbon campaign. The grass-roots movement distributed blue ribbons throughout the city while raising funds to save the Jets. It collected close to 50,000 signatures from locals pledging their support to the team.

Later, the Steen number-retirement ceremony -- and the lap of honor atop the shoulders of his teammates -- took center stage.

Before the night was through, forward Ed Olczyk, tears welling in his eyes, famously pledged, "Wherever this team ends up, when this team wins the Stanley Cup… It's coming back to Winnipeg!"

Not long after that pronouncement by Olczyk, now the lead hockey analyst for NBC Sports, the sobering reality came into focus for the Jets faithful.

"I'll always remember, when I came out and started talking, they booed me. Not because it was me. But because they knew what was going on. Everyone was there to say goodbye to the Jets," Irving told "When it was over, you could hear a pin drop. Those 15,000 people all walked out like they were leaving a funeral. It was deathly quiet. Nobody was saying a word."

A year later, after a 4-1 home loss to the Detroit Red Wings knocked the Jets out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team was gone.

The Wandering Years

NHL hockey returned to Winnipeg in 2011. Minor-league hockey, in the form of the Manitoba Moose, salved the wound of the Jets' departure in the interim.

The economic seeds planted during the previous decade-and-a-half resulted in the new Jets, a franchise that hasn't had an empty seat in more than two seasons and 74 home dates. There also is no denying the Jets returned at the perfect time, to a city experiencing an unprecedented boom.

But, first and foremost, the return of the Jets has helped spark the pride and energy of a resilient Canadian city.

Those outward signs of success, though, mask some of the hardships encountered during the trials to return the team to its rightful home.

As is often the case, rebirth is generally preceded by death.

The final farewell ceremony at Winnipeg Arena ended with an emotional plea from Steen, a deathbed wish that sowed the seeds of the eventual return of the Jets.

"If there is any chance at all to get an arena in Winnipeg, I would like to see one," Steen said moments before the Jets players hoisted him on their shoulders and skated him around the arena. "I hope someone is listening."

Someone was listening.

Winnipeg businessman Mark Chipman was a key figure in the campaign to keep the original Jets. It was an effort featuring numerous rallies and fundraising events.

In retrospect, the deck was severely stacked against Chipman and his peers. Ownership struggled financially, starting during the WHA days. Disputes regarding upgrades to the arena, which was in need of a renovation and not centrally located, were common. By the time owner Barry Shenkarow put the team up for sale in 1995, the cost of running it had become prohibitive. To further complicate the matter, Canadian franchises were hamstrung by an exchange rate that saw the Canadian dollar worth less than 75 percent of the American dollar.

Reports suggested the Jets would be sold to an ownership group from Minneapolis. But in the end, the team moved to Arizona.

Winnipeg businessman Mark Chipman was a key figure in the campaign to keep the original Jets. (Photo: Travis Golby/NHLI)

Few people took it harder than Chipman.

"It was almost like a sense of despair," Chipman told "It was so defeating. I was really involved in the effort to keep the team here in the first place. I invested the better part of a year with a couple of guys trying to hold it together. We couldn't; so personally it was very defeating. There was a real cloud over the community for a while."

The sense of loss eventually passed, and the city moved on in many ways, adapting to life without the Jets. Fears the loss of the Jets would cause a nosedive in the local economy, an assertion made often during attempts to save the franchise, proved to be overstated.

Despite the struggling Canadian dollar, Canada started rebounding from a difficult recession in the first half of the 1990s.

Winnipeg was losing population to migration around this time, but that trend began to slowly reverse through the later part of the decade.

"Very quickly, economists shot [the economic-downturn theory] down and said you're overrating the importance of having this team," said Irving, the broadcaster. "Sure enough, they were right because our economy is very stable in Winnipeg. It always has been and still is to this day. It was just fine in the months and years after the Jets left. There was a mourning period for sure, among hockey fans in particular. But the economy didn't take the hit that some predicted it would."

That steadiness in Winnipeg was due in large part to the willingness of local businessmen to invest in the city. Foremost among them was Chipman, a former football player at the University of North Dakota, where he earned his law degree. Chipman returned to Winnipeg in 1988 to take over the Birchwood Automotive Group. Founded by his father, Robert, in 1964, the company is Winnipeg's largest automotive dealership.

Chipman also became president of Megill-Stephenson, the holding company founded by his father that now holds stakes in real estate, construction and financial services as well as sports and entertainment. The growth in the sports division was spearheaded by Chipman, who bought the Minnesota Moose of the now-defunct International Hockey League in 1996 and brought them to Winnipeg, renaming the team the Manitoba Moose.

It may have been the IHL, but for the time being pro hockey was back in Winnipeg.

The Moose moved from the IHL to the American Hockey League in 2001, the same year Chipman established True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., a company established by local investors to spearhead the building of a downtown arena.

That dream became reality in 2004, in the form of MTS Centre, a 15,004-seat venue that was an upgrade from Winnipeg Arena. Boasting what it believed was a building worthy of the NHL, True North was establishing its reputation in the sports world.

Shares in the company were soon snapped up by billionaire David Thomson, chairman of the Thomson-Reuters media empire. Also, the True North-run Moose was being hailed as a first-class organization throughout hockey.

An assembly line of Moose coaches found its way to the NHL, suggesting the organization was doing something right. The list of graduates includes Randy Carlyle, Alain Vigneault, Scott Arniel, and Jets coach Claude Noel.

Mark Scheifele was the first Jets draft pick after the franchise's move to Winnipeg in 2011. (Photo: Getty Images)

"The fact that coaches went to the NHL [from the Moose] was confirmation of what was going on. They were running their organization as close to an NHL franchise as they could," Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gary Lawless told "The way they travelled was first-class. When they had the [2006] AHL All-Star Game, it was first-class. They ran their operation better than some NHL franchises. After a while, you would go to cover an NHL game and the hockey being played was better than what was being played in Winnipeg. But everything else was the same."

By 2005, Chipman was awarded the AHL's James C. Hendy award as the league's top executive, an honor earned in large part by his work to build MTS Centre. At the same time, the NHL was ushering in a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which included a salary cap for the first time. The salary cap allowed teams to operate on similar financial footing and, to a degree, delivered cost-certainty to owners.

With the Moose enjoying great success, and the Canadian dollar suddenly soaring, it was only a matter of time before Chipman and True North got on the NHL's radar.

In 2007, after years of biding his time, Chipman got a call from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman asking him to make the case for Winnipeg's return to the League.

"I'd say that's when it really felt like we had a chance. I know how thorough the League is. They wouldn't just ask me to come down to New York with a PowerPoint presentation if they weren't serious," Chipman said. "We were ready. By that time, we were almost 10 years in business and we knew how to sell rink boards and tickets and treat sponsors and do all that stuff.

"We had a brand-new building and I referred to us as a 'plug-and-play situation.' We could literally plug a team in whenever they needed us to."

The first potential "plug-and-play" moment presented itself in 2010, when speculation circulated that the Coyotes, who were owned by the NHL, might return to Winnipeg. Nothing came from that situation, but a prime opportunity emerged a year later when the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to True North.

On May 31, 2011, Chipman announced that, pending approval from the NHL Board of Governors, the Thrashers would be moving to Winnipeg to become the Jets. Ownership was transferred by the League on June 21, 2011.

The Homecoming

Overnight, the city of Winnipeg began the celebration, which proved wrong the naysayers who no longer believed Winnipeg could be a viable NHL city. It was a group that included some unlikely people.

"I was not a believer that the National Hockey League would be back in Winnipeg," Craig Heisinger told Heisinger, an assistant equipment manager with the original Jets, served as general manager of the Moose and is senior vice president and director of hockey operations for the Jets.

"I worked very closely with Mark during the whole process. It was probably only about five days before that I truly believed this was going to go down. I guess when it happened it happened. The Phoenix deal was on-again, off-again and then the Atlanta one happened very quickly."

Fifteen years after losing their NHL team, Winnipeg residents donned their old Jets jerseys and congregated at the city's famous Portage and Main intersection. It was an iconic moment that instantly became an indelible part of the city's history.

"It was like the city was one big family waiting for their oldest daughter to get married. There were parties, there were gatherings, there was anticipation, excitement," said Lawless, the Free Press columnist. "I've never done a study, but I'd like to know if there was a little baby boom after that period. People were in a real good mood around that time."

True North initially hoped to sell 13,000 season tickets. When tickets went on sale less than a week after the big announcement, the Jets surpassed that goal in 17 minutes.

Hockey fever had officially returned to Winnipeg. Chipman was feted as a municipal hero for his role in the return of the Jets.

Mark Chipman helped bring the Jets back to Winnipeg. (Photo: Getty Images)

"That has been one of the most gratifying or humbling parts of it. People still stop me and say, 'Thank you,'" Chipman said. "It's people you run into in the grocery store that have no connection, are not season-ticket holders. They just say, 'Hey, we're so thankful. This place feels different. It has changed the place.'"

The legacy of building MTS Centre and bringing the Jets back may well be the constant local development, particularly in the downtown area surrounding the arena.

In addition to a number of hotels and restaurants popping up, Investors Group Field, a new stadium that hosts the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, opened in 2013. Next year, the city will open the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a multimillion-dollar project that is among the most-anticipated in recent Winnipeg history. The city's Assiniboine Park and Zoo is undergoing a $200 million renovation, and a recent study from the Bank of Montreal forecasts 12,000 jobs created in Winnipeg during the next three years.

What's more, the population is rising at a rate that hasn't been seen in years. A 2013 Statistics Canada report shows Winnipeg's growth in the housing price index, which tracks the rate of growth of similar-sized homes across Canada, is the highest in the nation.

Even Winnipeg Arena, which was demolished in 2006, has been replaced by a shopping center that is anchored by a 45,000-square-foot Asian supermarket.

But the greatest change in Winnipeg since the Jets' return may be in the things that can't be quantified by charts, forecasts and dollar signs. The return may have helped spark economic growth, but it also encouraged local pride.

"The whole vibrancy and energy, it's been bringing a lot of life and a lot of people. It's amazing to watch," said Steen, who left Canada after retiring but later returned and has served on Winnipeg's city council since 2010. "It's just fantastic. It's becoming a place where young people don't want to move [away] anymore. They're happy to live in Winnipeg. And the people who moved away a long time ago are coming back."

The Future

Other than local residents, few can appreciate that shift more than NHL players. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Toews brought the Stanley Cup home after winning hockey's ultimate prize in 2010, before the Jets returned. He was welcomed as a conquering hero.

When he returned with the Cup three years later after Chicago's 2013 championship, the city was overcome with Jets fever and he was still a story in the city, but not the story.

Toews said he still can't fully comprehend how drastically the return of the Jets changed the psyche of Winnipeg.

"There's more bars, more social life, especially during the winter when people tend to stay indoors. But I think that pride of just being back on the map is back for Winnipeg Jets fans," Toews said days before his return for a Nov. 2 game. "People are die-hard hockey fans there. They deserve a hockey team just as much, if not more than, anybody. So there's definitely a pride factor there for Winnipeggers. It's kind of been the talk of the last couple years, how great the atmosphere is when you go in there and how crazy the fans are. So I think they're excited now and I'm sure that excitement will stay around for a long time, because those people definitely appreciate it."

It's been impossible for players across the League not to notice the mania that has gripped Winnipeg with the return of the Jets. Despite being the smallest building in the NHL, MTS Centre has consistently been one of the loudest arenas in hockey. For Jets players, that intense passion has been a marked change from their days in Atlanta.

"For one thing, there are a lot more fans here," center Bryan Little said. "The whole city follows the Jets. I think they get frustrated too when we're not doing well. They want to see the team win and make the playoffs. Just talking to people out in the city, that's the sense you get. They want us to do well and want us to win. They're probably just as frustrated as we are."

The only real point of contention with the team since it returned to Winnipeg has been its play. The Jets missed the playoffs in each of their first two seasons back in Winnipeg. Their 61-56-13 record isn't exactly cause for despair; the team has been in the hunt each year right up until the closing days of the regular season.

There is little doubt a rabid fan base that has sold out every game would like to see the Jets take a step forward this season and bring back Stanley Cup Playoff hockey to Winnipeg.

In that sense, the honeymoon may be over.

"People expect more of us now. I think it was like [a honeymoon] in the first year. They were just happy to have a team back and to cheer for the Winnipeg Jets again," Little said. "But you can definitely tell that now that they've got the team, they want it to be successful. They want to be able to brag about it. It's definitely a bit different than the first year, but they're always going to be supportive."

Teemu Selanne of the Anaheim Ducks has lived both existences of the Jets. He played for the old Jets, setting an NHL rookie record for goals (76) in 1992-93 before being traded during the farewell season. He has returned several times since Winnipeg re-entered the League, including a final time with the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 6, which gave Winnipeggers a final chance to say goodbye to him.

Teemu Selanne is one of three players active in the NHL who played on the original Jets. (Photo: Getty Images)

Selanne, Chicago Blackhawks goalie Nikolai Khabibulin and Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan are the only three players active in the NHL who played on the original Jets.

"There's more appreciation about my career," Selanne said of the new generation of Jets fans. "I felt that those people have supported me my whole career. It's almost overwhelming to go back there because the people are so nice and they appreciate it so much."

There's that word again: appreciate. It's a perfect description of the city's love for the team it once lost, a testament to how much absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

The Jets' return has helped bring Winnipeggers together again. But that unity was on full display almost two decades ago, when the city rallied to try to save its team.

"It was one of the most difficult things I had ever gone through. There was so much at stake, or so we thought. It was really difficult," Chipman said of the Jets leaving. "But in the end, when you stopped and looked around, it was a very unifying experience. A lot of the guys that worked really hard on [keeping the Jets] are still to this day very close, that didn't know each other very well [before]. I would say a new landscape of leadership emerged that had worked on it together. That group of businesspeople remains really tight today."

And Steen, the man who was so emotional in the spring of 1995, may be enjoying the renaissance as much as anybody.

He's reticent to discuss his memories from his emotional farewell, but as an icon in the community for parts of three decades, he still vividly remembers the atmosphere at MTS Centre for the 2011-12 home opener, a 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

"Everybody was just happy to be there. It was kind of a weird night. [The fans] gave a standing ovation after the game," Steen said. "They didn't win the game. But we had already won."

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