ST. PAUL, Minn. — From Dale Hawerchuk’s seat, the second coming of the Winnipeg Jets couldn’t have got off to a better start.
One of the most famous members of the city’s original franchise was sitting about 20 rows up from the stage at Friday’s NHL draft when team owner Mark Chipman officially announced he was reviving the "Jets" name — and that wasn’t even the best part.
Moments later, Mark Scheifele became the first pick in the new franchise’s history and Hawerchuk had a pretty big hand in it. The 18-year-old centre was one of the best players on Hawerchuk’s Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League this season.
"It’s very exciting for one of my guys … to go first to Winnipeg," said Hawerchuk. "He’s a great kid."
Everything has seemed right about the NHL’s return to the city — particularly the return of the name fans wanted most. Other possibilities were considered but Chipman couldn’t ignore the will of the people. It was exciting for him to take centre stage at Xcel Energy Center and give everyone what they wanted.
"(I was) just trying to keep my knees from going out from underneath to me," said Chipman. "That’s a daunting experience being up there in front of that many people and on TV and knowing how important the name is to so many people. It’s humbling.
"It’s really really humbling to have been able to utter those words tonight."
Scores of Winnipeg fans made the eight-hour drive to Minnesota for the event and turned up wearing the old school blue sweaters the team used until leaving for Phoenix in 1996. The new jersey is still in development — Scheifele was given a generic black-and-grey number with "NHL" on it — and will feature a different logo than was used in the past.
"It will be a very, very different look than when the team left back in ’96," said Chipman.
The new Winnipeg name had been the source of continued speculation since the sale and relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers sale was announced May 31.
It was even a popular topic of conversation when general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff sat down with prospects ahead of the draft. He ended those meetings by asking the players if they had any questions about the franchise and almost all of them were curious about the name.
"They’re all excited about that," said Cheveldayoff. "Their friends are all asking them."
Current players are already looking forward to pulling on a Jets sweater.
"So happy," goaltender Chris Mason told The Canadian Press. "That’s what I was hoping for. That was pretty cool to watch the first pick."
In Scheifele, Winnipeg gets a six-foot-three centre that seems to have plenty of offensive upside. He had 22 goals and 75 points in his first season of junior hockey on a team that struggled mightily.
"Good size, great hands and he loves the game to death," said Hawerchuk. "When you have kids like that, they’re going to be successful. They just find a way."
Scheifele was ranked 16th among North American skaters by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau and didn’t think there was a chance he’d hear his name called at No. 7. In fact, the only real hint he had that the Jets were interested was they asked how to pronounce his last name (it’s shi-FULL-ee).
As the first pick of the newborn Jets, it’ll be on the tip of tongues around Winnipeg.
"I’m just so excited right now," said Scheifele. "To go to the Jets and go to a team that has such a great organization, be the first pick since they’ve been back, it’s an unreal feeling. Walking up to the stage, my legs were shaking and my heart was racing.
"I’m just so excited."
.It’s a day that was 15 years in the making for Chipman.
The organization is quickly taking shape — Claude Noel was named coach on Friday morning — and now truly feels part of the NHL family once again. Hawerchuk spent the majority of his Hall of Fame career playing in Winnipeg and always believed he’d see the Jets return.
"You know, I’ve been an advocate that it’s going to come back here and be successful," said Hawerchuk. "I’ve just been to too many other markets that didn’t have the same kind of fanbase. When you look around, you say, ‘How can Winnipeg not have a team and yet we’re playing in places that people barely know what the game is?’