Jets poised to finally give mistreated Winnipeg fans hockey joy

Sean Reynolds looks at the past of the Winnipeg Jets, with the initial hope around the city eventually giving way to disappointment and heartbreak after playoff losses and having the team uprooted from Manitoba.

WINNIPEG — It’s never been about what’s fair for Winnipeggers, perhaps our fair country’s most mistreated group of hockey fans.

Toronto Maple Leafs fans carp about their playoff path this season? It’s not right that Toronto gets Boston and possibly Tampa after finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference?

Try spending the ’80s in the Smythe Division the way the Jets did, vying for a spot on the undercard to the Battle of Alberta. Or getting your team back and finding out it’s the Atlanta Thrashers, a franchise that has been around since 1999 and has not (wait for it) won a single … playoff … game … since.

To understand the poor, beaten puppy of a heart that beats inside the chest of the Jets fan you will witness tonight, you have to go back. Return to a time when the Jets were good, but they were World Hockey Association good, which barely counted outside the Canadian Prairies.

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The Jets won the final Avco Cups in the WHA with a fabulously skilled team of Finns and Swedes and swift-skating Canadian boys, one that would have beaten half of the clubs (or more) in the National Hockey League in 1979. They cried tears of joy on Portage and Main when their club was one of four that merged with the NHL, then cried even harder when the NHL relieved the Jets of nearly all of their best players, a merger “opportunity” that turned a good team poor.

Morris Lukowich, Scott Campbell and a goalie named Markus Mattson would (cough) carry the Jets into the NHL. It would not go particularly well for Jets Fan from there.

Through 17 seasons of netminding tandems named “Pokey and the Bandit,” first-round picks named Jimmy Mann, and played under the gaze of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth the size of a barn, the Jets gave their faithful a grand total of two playoff series wins.

Then they left town.

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“They’re very passionate,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice, when asked about the locals. It led him to tell this story:

“We’re here in our first summer, and I have a daughter that plays, and the first thing that struck me was the number of girls walking around with hockey bags. My daughter went right through and ended up playing their version of major junior.

“So everybody is tied to the game; everybody plays hockey, and they’re passionate about it.”

When you start a city, and lay out your primary intersection at the coldest, windiest coordinate this side of Pluto, maybe you should expect a cold shoulder now and again.

But that doesn’t faze Jets Fan. When the world gives them the Atlanta Thrashers, they give the world The Guess Who.

When Winnipeg wins the annual poll as the city that appears on the most “no-trade” lists, the Jets still put a 114-point team together that finished second in the overall NHL standings this season.

They love their hockey here, they know the game, and they deserve this excellent team that opens as overwhelming favourites over the Minnesota Wild tonight.

“What’s interesting is standing behind the bench … is when the crowd oohs and ahhs. When the crowd makes noise,” said Maurice. “The more sophisticated the market, the more hockey they’ve seen, their sensors go off the same time yours do on the bench. ‘That was a big play.’ ‘That was close.’ ‘That’s a good call.’ ‘That’s a bad call.’ All those things are kind of right. In this building, the crowd’s got the game dialed in.”

They’ll trot out the ol’ White Out tonight, one more time with feeling.

But this time, finally, the Jets are real.

As my Winnipeg Free Press colleague Randy Turner noted in a beautifully written piece the other day, there are only two Canadian teams in the post-season and only one of them is in the centre of the hockey universe.

The other is the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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