Seventeen months after the Winnipeg Jets took flight from Atlanta and landed on the Manitoba prairie, the love affair with their fans is still going strong. Now the team wants to stretch in new directions.
On the ice, that means making the NHL playoffs for just the second time in the franchise's 13 seasons as the Thrashers/Jets. Off the ice, it means chasing league events like an outdoor game (it looks as if Winnipeg will play host to a Heritage Classic in March of 2016 at its new football stadium), the entry draft and maybe even an all-star game.
"Those discussions I would categorize as preliminary," Jets co-owner Mark Chipman said of the outdoor game. "But we're hopeful. We've let the league know we're interested in all of those kinds of events. We'll take what comes our way."
The first thing Chipman, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, head coach Claude Noel and the players want is a playoff berth. The Jets began the second half of the 48-game season on a hopeful note after a mediocre first half in which their impressive 23-14-4 home record last season fell to 4-6 by the start of this week.
They came home from a 2-1-1 road trip to the raucous MTS Centre and dominated the Toronto Maple Leafs for a 5-2 win on Tuesday. A 3-1 win over the New York Rangers on Thursday gave the Jets a two-game win streak at home and left them with 30 points, good for the eighth and last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Jets get another chance to reel in the Maple Leafs when they visit the Air Canada Centre on Saturday.
"I've been here for five years now and I haven't seen a playoff game," said Jets defenceman Zach Bogosian, whose first season was 2008-09 in Atlanta. "I think we're moving in the right direction. I know when I go home [after the season], I usually don't tune in the first couple of rounds of the playoffs. You tend to watch toward the end. That's something I don't want to have to do any more. I want to be on TV playing."
The recent signs for a postseason run are promising. Despite a serious injury to their best offensive defenceman, Tobias Enstrom, who may be back in a couple of weeks, and little scoring outside their top line of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler, the Jets kept the playoffs in sight with good goaltending.
While the players have yet to embrace Winnipeg as a permanent home – most of them stay in condominiums during the hockey season – they do enjoy playing in front of a loud, full house rather than the half-empty Philips Arena in Atlanta. Winnipeg fans tend to be supportive as long as the effort is there, which may be a result of their gratitude for the return of the NHL after the original Jets decamped for Phoenix in 1996.
"They want to see the guys work hard and they don't boo when things are going bad," Jets forward Kyle Wellwood said. "They're a lot more forgiving and a lot more happy with an effort than just results. I'd say because of the fans, it makes [Winnipeg] a preferred destination for players that want to have an atmosphere where hockey is fun. You can go to some warm places and other towns where the hockey life in the rink isn't as much fun."
Jets defenceman Grant Clitsome came to Winnipeg after playing in another small market with the Columbus Blue Jackets, where Ohio State University football and basketball are king. He says getting recognized around the city and seeing players' names in other sections of the newspapers than the sports pages was an adjustment, but not an onerous one.
"The energy in the stands is just incredible," Clitsome said, "and just walking around the city, everyone knows who you are. With that comes responsibility and you're kind of thrust into the spotlight a little more and people know what's going on. You have to make sure you're looking after yourself and doing the right thing.
"It's a lot of fun having the fans stop you in the street and saying, 'Hey, good game last night,' or some night in a coffee shop saying, 'Hey, great hit.'"
The one big difference in the loud, enthusiastic crowds at the MTS Centre from those that watched the first edition of the Jets at the old Winnipeg Arena is that these fans are strictly pro-Jets. Original Six teams like the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens used to get the most cheers, much to the consternation of the Jets players.
Chipman remembers those days and says the difference is that with only 15,004 seats at the MTS Centre, all but a few hundred of them belong to season-ticket holders.
"Back then, I don't know that half of the building was season-ticket holders," he said. "You'd get a lot of walk-up customers. With Leafs fans, they would come out in droves. They don't have that opportunity any more because they can't get tickets."
Realignment next season will put the Jets in the Western Conference in a division with teams in the Central Time Zone– the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Nashville Predators. Jets fans probably would have preferred being grouped with their traditional rivals from Western Canada, the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, but the players like the idea of playing most games in one time zone.
Then again, Irrepressible Jets forward Evander Kane says there are a lot of things he will miss about playing in the Southeast Division.
"You get to go to Florida a few times every year," he said. "That's not necessarily a bad thing, right? But I'm sure there will be a lot of pros, like being in the same time zone.
"Still, it would be nice to be in a situation like New York where you can take the bus to your games or ride a bike. But it will be nice. We'll get to go to Vancouver twice a year."