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Winnipeg Face-Off party starts memorable weekend

by Patrick Williams
WINNIPEG -- While Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel sat Thursday in a quiet place to scout the Montreal Canadiens' game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, much of the rest of the city watched it in a decidedly different setting.

Crowds packed The Forks, Winnipeg's principal gathering spot set along the Red River, for the 2011 Molson Canadian NHL Face-Off. The event attracted a wide mix of families, couples and young adults. The Jets' new logo adorned all varieties of apparel. Vintage Winnipeg hockey jerseys -- as well as other NHL jerseys -- could be spotted throughout the crowd, as well. All 30 NHL clubs had flags adorning a nearby parking garage.

As if the much-anticipated event needed more of a lure to attract hockey-mad local citizens, unseasonably warm weather still is lingering in Winnipeg. Sunny skies helped set the scene, and 82-degree Fahrenheit temperatures lingered just one day after the city set a record-high temperature for the month of October. The event helped kick off what should be one of the most memorable weekends in Winnipeg history. The Jets and Canadiens play Sunday (5 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, CBC, RDS) in the city's regular-season return to the NHL. With the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday Monday, undoubtedly more than a few Winnipeggers have crafted a four-day weekend to take in all of the festivities set for the city.


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On Thursday, two large screens beamed the Canadiens-Maple Leafs broadcast to the crowd as thousands of fans created a concert-like vibe at the event, setting up blankets on the grass and a nearby hill to take in the scene. The NHL Network, Canadian Tire, EA Sports, Molson Canadian, Reebok, Scotiabank, Visa and XM all set up booths offering a variety of activities. Even Peter Puck, CBC's iconic 1970s-era mascot, arrived on the scene to pose for photographs.

A long line snaked through the grounds as Jets captain Andrew Ladd signed countless autographs at the Visa tent. Ladd became one of the club's first public faces shortly after the announcement that the NHL intended to return to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence. The two-time Stanley Cup champion arrived in Winnipeg just days after the announcement to take in the city and the MTS Centre. Ladd reported his positive findings back to his teammates, and the club's hectic offseason transition began in full. Since that point, Ladd has become one of the Jets' most popular players, and the five-year contract he signed in early July further cemented his bond with the Jets and the city.

Winnipeg band Inward Eye opened the musical portion of the event with a late-afternoon concert in which fans had Winnipeg's downtown skyline as part of the backdrop. Three Days Grace also played the event before Winnipeg musical legends Bachman & Turner took the stage during the second intermission of the Canadiens-Maple Leafs game.

CBC personality George Stroumboulopoulos served as something of an emcee for the event, and Ladd and several teammates helped introduce Bachman & Turner. Jets left wing Tanner Glass, fresh off a trip to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final with the Vancouver Canucks before signing with Winnipeg, helped Ladd and his teammates introduce the famous band. Afterward, Glass took to Twitter to offer his up-close take:

"WOW," Glass wrote. "Just did the NHL Face-Off at The Forks. I was excited, before but when Bachman Turner sang 'We just got back the Jets,' I got the shivers."

Glass and the Jets return to reality Friday for two more days of practice before they host the Canadiens.
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