They boo stars like Alexander Ovechkin. They boo tough guys like Chris Pronger, nice guys like Shane Doan and even relatively unknowns like Johan Hedberg. If Santa Claus ever played against the Winnipeg Jets, they'd probably boo him too.
The crowd at the MTS Centre is gaining a reputation across the NHL as not just rowdy, but downright mean.
Just ask Pronger. He got heckled almost every time he touched the puck during a game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Jets last month – even though his grandmother was in the stands. "They are boisterous and energetic," the veteran defenceman said. "It was like a playoff atmosphere."
Added New Jersey Devils netminder Hedberg, whose name rained down constantly during a recent game: "You can tell the fans are with them. It's an exciting building."
At 15,004 seats, the MTS Centre is by far the smallest venue in the NHL. But what it lacks in size, the crowd more than makes up for in volume.
Last Tuesday's game against the Boston Bruins is a case in point. The fans didn't just ride the Bruins, they singled out players such as Zdeno Chara and Milan Lucic for particular grief. Goaltenders have become another special target, with fans chanting goalie names incessantly. It got to the point last Tuesday the crowd spent more time booing Bruins players than cheering for the Jets. But when Jets forward Bryan Little scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal, the noise was deafening.
"I was talking to Little after he scored and we were saying that was probably the loudest we've heard it to date," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "They seemed to be right in it from the drop of the puck and in every aspect. One of the best parts about playing in Winnipeg is having that support."
Jets head coach Claude Noel marvelled at last Tuesday's crowd, saying he's never heard it so rambunctious. "It's just unbelievable," he said. "It's like they want to be on the bench. It's like they are on the bench. They are just right into it."
The crowd may be doing more than just making noise. The Jets have won three consecutive games at home (beating the Phoenix Coyotes, New Jersey and Boston) and they are 6-1-0 in their last seven home games. Even better for Winnipeg, the team is above .500 for the first time this season (12-11-4) and just one point out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference heading into Wednesday's games.
Opposing players are starting to take note. Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron had an inkling of what was in store. He'd played at the MTS Centre in 2005, as a member of the Canada world junior team which used Winnipeg as a base to prepare for the tournament in North Dakota that year.
"It was pretty loud," he said, recalling the crowd that came out to watch the juniors. "Lots of energy."
Doan also had an idea of what he would face when his Coyotes visited Winnipeg on Dec. 1.
"Anybody that comes into this building, that is playing against them, is the enemy and you understand that and love that," Doan said.
Even though he is considered something of a Winnipeg boy, having been drafted by the old Jets just before the team moved to Phoenix in 1996, Doan heard an unending stream of jeers and taunts last week. He got a brief standing ovation when the announcer recognized his Jets credentials, but the booing started up again as soon as fans sat down.
The energy can work both ways. Doan talked about using the booing as motivation and Noel has noted opposing players enjoy being singled out. "It gets them going," the coach said recently.
But right now, the MTS Centre is a hostile environment for opposition teams. As one Jets fan, Harold Nachtigall, put it recently: "The Hangar in the 'Peg is, I expect, quickly becoming a dreaded place to play."