WINNIPEG -- MTS Centre won't be the same without him.
Len Kropioski, affectionately known as "Kroppy" by Winnipeg Jets fans, died Tuesday at his home in Kenora, Ontario. He was 98.
The World War II veteran, always sporting a jacket, tie and his veterans cap, quickly became part of the national anthem presentation prior to NHL games in Winnipeg. During the Jets' first five seasons at MTS Centre, he was parked in his rinkside season's seat in the arena's northeast corner and without fail could be seen signing "O Canada" and saluting.
The MTS Centre video screen production of the anthems always switched to a shot of Kropioski for the cheered crescendo of the final few bars.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler tweeted a tribute to Kropioski on Wednesday:
"True North Sports & Entertainment and the Winnipeg Jets were greatly saddened when we learned yesterday afternoon of Len Kropioski's passing," the Jets said in a statement. "'Kroppy' was the consummate hockey fan and his support of the team and the organization has always been genuine and pure, dating back to our time in the American Hockey League. Kroppy had a tremendous impact on the organization, particularly those who interacted with him and came to know his family well. He will be missed."
Kropioski had renewed his season ticket for another five years during the offseason. He was a baseball and hockey player and a passionate sports fan throughout his life, beginning while growing up in Winnipeg and continuing after he moved to Kenora, his wife's hometown, following World War II.
Kropioski had season tickets at the old Winnipeg Arena when the Jets began play in the World Hockey Association in 1972, and he continued to attend games when they moved into the NHL in 1979. When the original Jets franchise left to become the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996, Kropioski because a season-ticket holder of the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League; he converted those into tickets for the second edition of the Jets after the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011.
Midway through last season, Kropioski was hospitalized with an illness and missed about two months at MTS Centre. He returned on March 30, when the Jets faced the Ottawa Senators, and the Jets' big-screen video producers waited for a TV timeout during the game to welcome Kropioski back.
The salute from the fans brought tears to his face, along with smiles and waves. Within moments, there were few dry eyes left in the house.
"After he missed a spell, the emotion of welcoming him back ... that moment ranks at or near the top with anything I've ever seen here," said Kyle Balharry, senior director of game production and broadcast services for True North Sports & Entertainment and the Jets. "It was raw emotion from everyone in the crowd that night, the staff, the fans, and it was an emotional night for Len."
Balharry said Kropioski's popularity and association with the national anthem at MTS Centre began by chance.
"We knew he had been at the MTS Centre for a long time before the Winnipeg Jets arrived, that he had been a huge supporter of the Winnipeg community and sports community probably back to the 1930s and 1940s," Balharry said. "I think he had been entrenched in the hockey community in this area for a long time.
"But at that first Jets game (Oct. 9, 2011), our cameras simply found an incredibly passionate elderly gentleman during the anthem, belting it out more than we've seen anyone belting it out before. So we started going to him at the end of the anthem for every game, not as a prompt or a crowd thing but more in honor of showing this man who exuded an enormous amount of passion, all in a short minute and a half, in belting out that anthem.
"Everyone could see how spirited and emotional he was singing it and it resonated with absolutely everybody in our organization and among fans and among those on TV. He became instantly beloved because of that passion."
Balharry said that as the Jets' organization learned more about Kropioski, it was so inspiring he became almost a member of the family.
"That he would drive two hours from Kenora to the MTS Centre was amazing," he said. "In the fall it's easy when the weather's nice, but when it's minus-30 in the winter and the roads aren't so good, he always found a way. He was devoted. He was passionate and it made everyone feel like they knew him, whether you'd shaken his hand or just seen him on TV.
"And it speaks to what's important in our organization and to the strength of the NHL, that quite frankly, it's an amazing thing what passion can be brought on by thousands of people pulling on the same rope."
Born in July 1918, Kropioski served in the Canada armed forces in 1942 and 1943, stationed in the Aleutian Islands. After the war, he worked as a lineman in Kenora, retiring in 1983.
His support of the sporting community in northwestern Ontario and Winnipeg included sponsoring local teams. Most recently, he lent that support to a girls' slow-pitch softball team and a men's hockey team, which called themselves Kroppy's Hawks.
Through the years, Kropioski-sponsored teams always called themselves Hawks.
"I knew Charlie Gardiner when he played in the nets for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1934," Kropioski told www.kenoraonline.com in 2012. "I always remember this; that was the year the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, and he lived about two blocks from where we used to live."
Balharry said Wednesday the Jets will have a tribute to Kropioski at their season opener on Oct. 13 against the Carolina Hurricanes at MTS Centre.