© Geoff Brookes
Today is the fifth anniversary of the day that Stephen Brunt (and the Globe and Mail) published the article that heralded the return of the NHL to Winnipeg.
The story was met with widespread denials, by the NHL, True North, and others. But it gave tangible hope to hundreds of thousands of Winnipeg Jets fans – possibly millions of Jets fans if you count fans around the world (many of whom are former Manitobans).
I wrote about that night, from a personal perspective, here:
But what did that night mean for all of the other Jets fans who were waiting for news of their return, with 1 part anticipation and 4 parts anxiety?
It might be a bit hard for non-Manitobans to understand how much this team is loved – even during the 15 years that the team didn’t exist. For some fans, the idea of the NHL Jets never died. This is the main theme of an excellent documentary, “White Noise”. Fans kept Jets memorabilia like a shrine to their former team. One man had his basement set up as a complete replica of the Winnipeg Jets dressing room. When the team was at risk of being lost in 1995, the “save the Jets campaign” attracted tens of thousands of people to public events, and brought in over $10 million from public donations:
During the 15 years that the Jets had ceased to exist in the NHL, Manitobans travelling abroad repeatedly found Winnipeg Jets memorabilia, in the farthest reaches of the globe.
One fan – Darren Ford – created a website to plot the return of the NHL to Winnipeg. It had over 3,000 members, many of whom were regular contributors on its chat room. Each possibility for a return of the NHL was discussed in depth, with regular updates on the latest developments and rumours, with thousands of posts by the website members.
When the team finally returned, the outpouring of this love for the Winnipeg Jets bordered on collective insanity.
The NHL had requested that a season ticket drive be completed, as a condition of their approval. As Gary Bettman said in the official press conference on May 31, 2011, (roughly quoting) “This isn’t going to work very well unless this building is sold out every night”.
The tickets sold out, online, in two minutes (unofficially), with multi-year legal commitments. Thirteen thousand season tickets were sold (including some presales for former AHL season ticket holders) in just two minutes.
Officially, the time to complete the sale was 17 minutes, including the processing of additional orders to replace the few that were not successfully processed in those first 2 minutes. In addition, an 8,000 waiting list was instantly created – instantly. The waiting list was unofficially well over 8,000 in those first few minutes, but it was officially capped at 8,000. Capped. It was said that there were millions of unique hits to the website that was processing the orders, during the 17 minutes.
Fast forward to the date of the first ever hockey game of Winnipeg Jets 2.0. It was a “split squad” preseason game played on September 20, 2011. It reportedly had a television audience estimated at over 500,000 viewers – in a province of just a little over 1 million people.
The videos from that preseason game are legendary. Here are a couple of them:
Passion? You could say that.
(On a hockey note, Dustin Byfuglien’s crushing hit in the opening moments of the game, and Mark Scheifele’s four point night, were pleasant harbingers of the future).
So, with this incredible pent up passion for this Winnipeg Jets NHL hockey team, like a mountain before a volcanic eruption, Stephen Brunt’s May 19 article brought out incredible emotions among the diehard fans. Grown men cried. Then shouted. Then celebrated.
It was the release of 15 years of passion, kept by thousands of fans just below the surface. On May 19, 2011, that passion erupted.
After the May 19, 2011 celebrations wore off, there was an agonizing 12 day period, in which every word, every punctuation mark, and every public statement, was scrutinized and analyzed. Anxiety built again, despite Stephen Brunt’s repeated claims that the deal was done. Slowly, day by day, the broader public media depicted a deal that was drawing nearer to a positive conclusion. Finally, the official announcement was made on May 31, 2011.
And while May 31 is the official date, and most worthy of celebration as the official return of the NHL to Winnipeg, May 19 will always be remembered as the day that the story broke wide open – the day that Portage and Main once again unfurled the flags and colours of the Winnipeg Jets.