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‘Winnipeg Destiny’ comes full circle with Jets’ return

Sorry, Timothy Eaton – but no need to rub your toe.

This city had all the luck it needed earlier this year when the NHL decided True North Sports & Entertainment could go ahead and purchase the Atlanta Thrashers and relocate the foundering team to Winnipeg as the reborn Jets.

The Jets left Canada 15 years ago in search of a better facility than the old Winnipeg Arena and will return to a much superior facility in the downtown MTS Centre, where the 1,360-kilogram statue to the founder of the once-great, now-defunct department store chain now sits in one of the rink's corridors.

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The huge statue's left toe shines as bright as brass where, over the decades, Winnipeggers have polished it with touches in hope of good fortune coming their way.

It was Timothy Eaton who revolutionized Canadian retail with his motto "Goods Satisfactory or Money Refunded" – something that will not likely come into play at the MTS Centre for some time to come.

Season tickets, it is said, sold out in a matter of seconds last June when they were offered to the general public – though it took nearly 20 minutes for the computers to process the transactions. The waiting list for future season tickets mushroomed so quickly True North had to cap it at 8,000.

It has been a case, CJOB sports director Bob Irving told listeners Tuesday, of unconditional "love" for a team that many believed had been lost forever 15 years ago. This total embrace by Manitoba fans suggests that there are neither high nor low expectations, but rather no expectations at all. It could be years, Irving thinks, before anyone will even think to criticize whatever the results are to be for this team of largely unknowns that will open training camp on Saturday.

Even despite the massive floods of this spring and summer, 2011 is going down as a year of triumph for this city once known as "The Bull's Eye of the Dominion." In recent decades, Winnipeg has seemed to be quickly overlooked compared to economic bull's eyes farther to the west, Calgary in particular.

It is with sweet coincidence, perhaps, that the 2011-12 hockey season will fall on the centennial of Winnipeg's previous great moment in the sun, 1912.

That glorious time, a mere two years before the First World War, is considered Winnipeg's "High Noon" – a time when anything and everything seemed possible for this community built around the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.

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"All roads lead to Winnipeg," claimed the Chicago Tribune of the day. And indeed it seemed they did. In merely 40 years, according to Winnipeg 1912 author Jim Blanchard, the community had grown from a mere village to Canada's third-largest city. In the previous decade, the population had tripled to 170,000, with many believing it only a matter of time before it reached a million.

The place had a swagger that largely disappeared until the football Blue Bombers roared off to a 7-1 start to this season (a swagger somewhere diminished as they lost their next two matches). The city in 1912 was Canada's most cosmopolitan as well as its youngest, with the great majority of its people under the age of 40. It was a city bustling with life and activity.

And the people believed in their community, erecting twin arches to the entrance that shouted out "prosperity" on one side, "progress" on the other. "We Canadians all believe," said Dominion Magazine, "that 1912 will be the greatest year so far, in the history of the City of Winnipeg, of Western Canada and of this Dominion." They called it "Winnipeg Destiny."

But it wasn't quite to be. War, shifting economies, changes in transportation and competition from other centres eventually meant "destiny" wasn't going to be quite the way they envisioned it back in 1912.

But perhaps they were merely a century ahead of themselves.

Today's Winnipeg is not the "Winterpeg" of snide Eastern jokes. Perhaps because so much of its commerce is underground its new prosperity has somewhat passed notice. Things, however, have been looking up lately – none so spectacularly as in the huge crane putting together that fascinating Rubik's Cube of architecture that will become the Canadian Museum of Human Rights down by the shops and restaurants of the charming Forks.

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There are new parks, new malls and construction about to begin on a huge new IKEA outlet – the middle-class's ultimate measure of well-being. A new airport, a new football stadium and an improved convention centre are next on the list.

"When are Canadians going to realize that Winnipeg is more than floods, mosquitoes, homicides and winter winds?" Tom Ford asks in an op-ed piece in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Perhaps the hockey team will help.

There is, beyond doubt, a buzz in the city as the home opener – Oct. 9, versus the Montreal Canadiens – approaches. Even a meaningless victory this Monday by the Jets rookies in an exhibition match held in Penticton, B.C., gets front-page coverage. "Dream Debut," lauds the Sun following the youngsters' 4-0 win over a team of San Jose Sharks prospects.

"For several months now it's been Jets, Jets, Jets," says Rick Lefort, manager of Uptown Sports Cards & Collectibles in Portage Place Mall.

The official team jerseys will not even go on sale until early October and yet T-shirts and caps with the new team logo on are doing a brisk business.

"I'd give it a 9.5 out of 10 for excitement," says Lefort. "But it's going to be a lot higher once people are actually back in their seats."

Timothy Eaton would be impressed.

Goods satisfactory – and not even yet delivered.

Roy MacGregor will be writing from Winnipeg until the Jets' season-opener in October.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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